Syrian rebels cheer U.S. missile strike on Assad's airbase

CAIRO — Syrian opponents of President Bashar  Assad cheered the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian regime airbase Friday, saying it's about time the United States responded to the Syrian strongman's brutality.

"Hitting regime targets which have been used to launch attacks against Syrian civilians for six years is welcome news," said Issam Elrayaes, 41, a captain in the Free Syrian Army, one of many rebel groups waging a civil war against Assad's rule.

"We see (President) Trump as a man who keeps his word unlike the previous administration," Elrayae, a former army officer in Assad's army, said in a telephone interview from a location along Syria's border with Jordan. "If these (strikes) continue it will be great."

Trump ordered the U.S. missile attack, the first direct assault on Assad's forces since the civil war began in 2011, as retaliation for Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons Tuesday against a rebel-held city that killed at least 86 civilians, including 27 children.

The strikes by about 60 missiles fired from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea caused extensive damage to a military installation near Homs, damaging more than a dozen hangars, a fuel depot and weapons, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least seven Syrian soldiers were killed and nine wounded in the airstrike, according to SANA, the official Syrian news agency.

The base is about 25 miles from Khan Sheikhoun, the town allegedly targeted with chemical weapons. Russia, which is providing military support for Assad, had said the chemicals spread when Syrian warplanes struck a terrorist lab.

Syrian rebels like Elrayaes said it was about time that the U.S. came to their aid. President Barack Obama vowed action after a similar chemical attack in 2013, but decided against one after Assad promised to get rid of his chemical weapons.

At the time, Trump opposed U.S. military intervention but after Tuesday's attack, he vowed to respond and faulted Obama for not following through on a retaliatory strike.

"We see it as a crucial development even though it's coming very late," Anis abu Zeid, 40, who was about 25 miles away from the strike, said in a phone interview. "It is the first real slap against Assad since the war in Syria began."

"We say to our American friends that Assad is the cause of terrorism in Syria," he said. "This missile strike says the Americans recognize that the chemical attack was also a form of terrorism…And we hope this shows a new seriousness in Washington about Syrian situation."

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which represents an assortment of rebel groups, said it "welcomes the strike and is asking for more."

Although Assad has gained the upper hand in the war, thanks to Russia's iinvolvement since 2015, his alleged use of chemical weapons appears intended to demoralize remaining opponents and force civilians in rebel-held areas to leave the country.

On Facebook, some Syrians cheered Trump, posting his picture as their profile photos and writing, Menhebak (We love you), a reference to pro-regime Syrians who had previously done the same with Assad's photo.

Pro-government Syrians posted their own responses, urging the government to retaliate.

Elrayaes said more U.S. strikes are the only way to stop Assad's government troops from targeting civilians.

He said he was close to getting promoted from major when he defected from the military in 2011 after returning from training in Tehran because he was ordered to kill civilians at army checkpoints, something he had already witnessed.

He attributed the chemical attack to part of that strategy because the Free Syrian Army had made advances recently in the Hama region in central Syria, which the government sees as key to winning the war.

"That made the regime crazy… yet they don't have enough manpower to defend these front lines even with the Iranian militias," he said, referring to help provided by Iran, another key Assad ally. "So the only way to defeat the people is by punishing civilians…putting pressure on civilians so they will go to local rebel troops and ask them to leave."

Kamal Bahbough, 36, a doctor in Al Rastan, about 60 miles from the site of the chemical attacks, said he treated some of the victims at his hospital and praised Trump for responding.

"People hope this punishment will make Assad think before committing more massacres," he said.

Bhatti reported from Paris. Contributing: Riham Alkousaa in New York.