Western missile attacks against Syrian chemical weapons facilities have prompted defiant celebrations on the streets of Damascus as it became clear that the air strikes posed no threat to President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power and would likely have no impact on the trajectory of the Syrian war.
Fears of a wider escalation faded after it emerged that the missile strikes by the US, Britain and France on three sites associated with the Syrian chemical weapons program had caused no serious casualties and had probably not destroyed the country’s capacity to develop and deploy banned chemical substances.
There were expressions of anger from Syria’s allies, with Russia labelling the attack an ‘‘act of aggression’’, Iran calling it ‘‘a war crime’’ and Syria describing it as ‘‘barbarous’’. US President Donald Trump called the attacks an ‘‘enormous success’’, tweeting that they represented a ‘‘mission accomplished’’.But on the streets of Damascus, there was jubilation. Residents gathered in central squares and danced to patriotic songs, waving Syrian flags alongside those of Russia and Iran, Syria’s allies in the fight against the anti-Assad rebellion.
Malcolm Turnbull took aim at Russia for its complicity in Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack on its own people, saying Vladamir Putin should have stopped it from happening and must bring his ally into line.
Speaking in the wake of US, British and French missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime at the weekend, Mr Turnbull stepped up his support for US President Donald Trump's decision to take retaliatory action, and stressed Russia's role in the gas attack that killed about 75 people.
"The fact is Russia should not have allowed it to happen," he said. "It’s time that Russia played a responsible role. It has all of the influence and the authority over the Syrian government that it needs to ensure that these crimes are not committed."
Mr Turnbull pointed to Russia's veto power on the United Nations Security Council, a position it has so far used to obstruct efforts to investigate the Assad regime's chemical weapons capability.
The PM said the Kremlin "claims to be against the use of chemical weapons" and should admit last week's chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma was the work of the Syrian regime.
"Russia needs to act responsibly," Mr Turnbull said.
"It should stop all the denial and the pretence that it wasn’t an action by the Syrian government, and ensure that the chemical weapons are destroyed, that the ability of the regime to use chemical weapons is eliminated and that this type of criminal conduct does not occur again."
The coalition air strikes on Saturday morning, Australian time, hit three sites connected to Syria's chemical weapons capabilities, according to the Pentagon. Those struck by a barrage of 105 missiles included a research facility near Damascus, a weapons storage facility west of Homs and a nearby command post.
Australian assets were not utilised in the strikes but Mr Turnbull reiterated he and his cabinet were "strong supporters of the targeted proportionate and responsible action by the United States, France and the United Kingdom".
The Kremlin had warned Washington that Russia would fend off any strike that jeopardised its servicemen in Syria. The West respected that red line by giving advance notice of Saturday’s attack, just as it did a year ago when it struck a Syrian air base. Russia had sat idle back then, but this time it had threatened to retaliate.Such a clash could have quickly spun out of control – an extremely dangerous scenario that was widely compared to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the world narrowly escaped a nuclear conflict.
‘‘With our allies, we ensured that the Russians were warned ahead of time,’’ said French Defence Minister Florence Parly.
The Russian military said its air defences at two bases in Syria tracked the incoming missiles but did not engage them.
Russian social media buzzed on Saturday with angry nationalist comments blasting Mr Putin for failing to protect his ally. But state TV focused on criticising the West for acting on the basis of what Moscow called a faked chemical attack.
The Kremlin’s tight control over the media will help Mr Putin avoid any significant damage to his carefully nurtured image of a strong leader.
In fact, his cautious stance could boost his popularity further amid fears of war that swept Russia. In recent days, state media has been offering tips on how to behave in a nuclear conflict and what supplies to take to bomb shelters.
Iran, another backer of the regime in Damascus, has already warned of "regional consequences" to the strikes - while Mr Trump has said there could be further strikes if Mr Assad did not cease the use of chemical weapons.
The US, UK and France governments say their intelligence gives them a very high degree of confidence that Syrian government forces did carry out the Douma attack on April 7.