US Syria attack live
The Trump administration informed the Australian government in advance of its plans to launch the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria, Fairfax Media understands.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had pointedly said before news of the strikes broke that the chemical attack on civilians “cries out for a strong response”.
On Friday morning, Mr Turnbull linked the attacks to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and blamed Russia for failing to rein in its ally.
But Mr Turnbull carefully sidestepped questions about what action Australia might take against the regime after Washington appeared to ramp up its rhetoric about the need for Mr Assad’s removal.
“This is a war crime of the worst sort. It is inhumane and it has been universally condemned,” Mr Turnbull told radio 3AW.
Within hours reports emerged that the US had launched about 50 Tomahawk missiles from US Navy warships at targets in Syria.
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overnight described the chemical attack as a “serious matter” that warranted “a serious response”.
He said that, given the gas attack, “it would seem that there would be no role for [Mr Assad] to govern the Syrian people”.
He also said removing Mr Assad needed an international effort and, when asked if the US would organise that effort, said “those steps are under way”.
The US response in Syria has been an about-face from its previous stated position. Last week Washington told the United Nations that removing Mr Assad was not a priority. And it was uncertain whether Mr Tillerson was referring to international steps that have been under way for two years to find a political process for the removal of Mr Assad as part of ending the Syrian civil war.
US media reports overnight stated that the Pentagon was preparing military options for President Donald Trump against the Syrian regime.
Mr Trump said of Mr Assad that “something should happen” in response to the chemical attacks.
Hillary Clinton on Friday called for the Trump administration to “take out” the Syrian air force to prevent further attacks.
The gas attack on the opposition-held town on Khan Sheikhoun killed more than 80 people, including dozens of children. Photos and videos shared on social media showed victims choking and foaming at the mouth, with some locals needing to be hosed down by rescue workers.
Asked on Friday morning whether Australia would step up its military effort in Syria beyond air strikes against the so-called Islamic State group, Mr Turnbull said he had spoken “a little while ago” to Defence Minister Marise Payne and Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin but refused to say if any action was being discussed.
“I don’t want to speculate any further about that. You know where we stand. We have condemned this attack, utterly. It cries out for a strong response and we are in very close touch, as we always are, constant communications with our allies, in particular the United States.
In a slap at the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Turnbull said that “Russia obviously is the principal foreign sponsor of the Assad regime”.
Asked whether Russia had behaved appropriately, Mr Turnbull said, “No.”
The most likely way that the US can find a political path forward to removing Mr Assad would be to persuade his key backer, Moscow, to help engineer his removal.
But Mr Putin has long refused to abandon his military and political support for his ally, frustrating international efforts to remove the dictator.
Illustrating the uncertainty about the process for removing Mr Assad, Mr Tillerson said the international community effort would mean first defeating the Islamic State group, then stabilising Syria and working on a political transition.
But such a transition has been discussed for two years without progress, given that there is little leverage to oust Mr Assad – a situation that would only become further solidified if Syria were stabilised with the regime still in power.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Australia was already providing forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but it was up to countries such as Russia and Iran to pressure the Assad regime.
“Australia certainly can provide some sort of international condemnation of Assad,” he said. “You can’t gas citizens of your own country. That is a war crime.
“It’s time for Putin and the Russians to step up.”
Greens senator Scott Ludlum issued a statement on Friday condemning the US strikes on Syria and calling on Mr Turnbull to rule out Australian involvement in any new military campaign.
“The horror of the chemical weapons attack in Syria this week requires a credible, independent investigation, not a random barrage of missiles ordered by a clueless President,” he said.
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