Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (© Sana Sana / Reuters/Reuters)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted with outrage on Friday to U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian military air base, calling them an “unjust and arrogant aggression” that would only increase his government’s determination to “crush” militant groups in Syria, according to the state news agency.  

At least 13 people were killed in the missile strikes, including five soldiers on the base and eight civilians in areas surrounding the facility, according to Talal al-Barazi, the governor of Homs province, where the air base is located. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

American officials said the early morning strikes were carried out in retaliation for a chemical attack in northern Syria that killed scores of civilians earlier this week.     

But Syrian officials asserted that the strikes would hamper their ability to fight extremist militant groups. In a statement carried by the Syrian state news agency, Assad called the military action “disgraceful” and accused the United States of trying to “dominate the world.”

Authorized by President Trump, the strikes against the Syrian government marked a significant escalation of American engagement in Syria and a broadening of the U.S. role beyond the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

The missile strikes, which appeared more symbolically punitive than realistically damaging to Assad’s government, potentially exposed U.S. forces and proxies across the region to retaliation by Syrian allies, including Iran.

The missiles struck the Shayrat air base in the western province of Homs at about 3:40 a.m. local time, officials said. Syrian military aircraft are believed to have departed from the same base before dropping a nerve agent on the opposition-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday.

The base is an important hub for airstrikes on territory held by rebel groups as well as the Islamic State, according to opposition activists and Syrian officials.  

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said a general was among those killed in the American attack, which caused extensive damage to more than a dozen hangars and a fuel depot.

Witnesses described ambulances racing toward the airfield, where a huge fire was blazing. Video aired later Friday on Syrian state television showed several large hangars at the base, with their entrances singed black by fire.

Trump said the strikes were in the “vital national security interest” of the United States and called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

(Sarah Parnass,Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

As rumors swirled Thursday of an impending American attack, there were unconfirmed reports that members of the Syrian government had spirited their families across the border to the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the chemical attack, insisting it would never use chemical weapons. On Syrian state television Friday, presenters condemned the “mercenaries of the U.S. and their allies” and praised the Syrian army for protecting the country.

Barazi, the governor of Homs province, said in a phone interview that the attack would not cause the Syrian government to change course in the six-year civil war. 

“The war on terrorism is sustained, and the protection of the people is our priority,” he said. He asserted that the U.S. strikes were aimed at weakening the Syrian army and allowing the Islamic State to launch attacks on areas near the air base.  

Syrian opponents of Assad, many of whom have spent years prodding the United States to intervene militarily in the conflict, praised the missile strikes. Some called on Trump to go further.

“God bless Trump, but the story does not end here,” said Bayan al-Qalamumni, a former civil servant from the Damascus suburbs now living as a refu­gee in southern Turkey. 

“The Syrian people have tasted too much bitterness to be happy that one airport was struck. The criminal must be brought to justice before the entire world,” he said.  

Capt. Mohanad Jnied, head of external relations for Jaish al-Nasr, a rebel group, wrote on Twitter that “the American airstrike was limited militarily but represents a significant turnaround in how America and the world will treat the Syrian people and their revolution.”

Mahmoud al-Hadi, a spokesman for the U.S.-allied Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, said the strikes were welcome but “not sufficient.” The Syrian air force, he added, “should be neutralized completely, and Syrian rebels should exploit the chance of international community support to unite themselves against the regime and terrorist and extremist groups as well.”

Habib reported from Stockholm. Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.