U.S. cruise missiles pound Syrian airbase in retaliation for deadly chemical attack

Last Updated Apr 7, 2017 1:32 AM EDT

The United States attacked a Syrian airfield with nearly 60 cruise missiles Thursday night as a response to a chemical weapons attack it blamed on President Bashar al-Assad, CBS News has confirmed.

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A U.S. official said the site, called Shayrat, was associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program and was directly linked to the horrific attack on Tuesday. The airfield is located about 50 miles south of the village where 80 civilians died.

The official said that the U.S. assesses with a high degree of confidence that the chemical weapons attack was launched from the site by air assets under the command of the Assad regime.

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Aerial view of Shayrat airfield in Syria.

U.S. Department of Defense

“It craters the air base runway from use for some time in the future,” Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Middle East Security Project, told CBSN.

The attack was launched from war ships stationed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and targeted hangars and fuel storage facilities.

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The Pentagon released images and video Thursday which showed the USS Ross fire cruise missiles.

They were aimed at aircraft, shelters, petroleum and logistics storage areas, ammo bunkers, radars (air defense and air traffic control) and air defenses, according to the Pentagon.

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USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile April 7, 2017.

MC3 (SW) Robert S. Price

There is a 99 percent reliability rate with the cruise missiles, which hit targets within 1 meter.

Each cruise missile carries a 1,000-pound warhead. So nearly 60 cruise missiles going off in 60 seconds amounts to 60,000 pounds of explosives in the space of 60 seconds.

USS Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, conducted naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis provided CBS News a statement with details on Thursday’s attack and why it targeted Shayrat.

In the graphic below, it shows the track of a Syrian plane taking off from Shayrat airfield on April 4, going over the village hit by the chemical attack, and returning to the base.

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The Pentagon released a graphic showing the track of a Syrian plane taking off from Shayrat airfield on April 4, going over the village hit by the chemical attack, and returning to the base.

U.S. Department of Defense

The Pentagon also released satellite photos showing the village on Feb. 21 with no craters and on April 6 with craters following the the chemical attack.

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The Pentagon released before-and-after satellite photos of Khan Sheikhoun, the village in Idlib province hit by a chemical weapons attack. The photo on the right, from April 6, shows a crater after the attack.

U.S. Department of Defense

The cruise missile strike occurred at 8:40 p.m. ET and 4:40 a.m. Syrian time.

The Pentagon says the U.S. took extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties and to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict. Every precaution was taken to execute Thursday’s strike with minimal risk to personnel at the airfield.

Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike, the Pentagon says, and confirms that it’s assessing the results of the strike. Initial indications are that the strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.

In a televised statement, President Trump said he authorized the airstrikes because “it is in the vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons.”

“Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women and children,” Mr. Trump said.

After Mr. Trump changed his position on Assad staying in power earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed him on military options in Syria. In an impromptu press conference, Tillerson said of Assad, “It will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.” When asked about a possibility of removing Assad, Tillerson replied “Those steps are underway.”

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CBS News

CBS News’ David Martin and Margaret Brennan contributed to this report.