France is urging Russia to join in renewed peace efforts after Western missile strikes on Syria aimed at punishing Bashar Assad for an alleged chemical attack, while the Syrian leader was said to have appeared unfazed Sunday in a meeting with Russian politicians.
The U.S., France and Britain launched dozens of airstrikes early Saturday at sites they said were linked to a chemical weapons program. Assad and his close ally, Russia, have denied government forces ever used such weapons.
Russian politicians who met with Assad on Sunday said he was in high spirits, while Assad was quoted in state media as saying the Western strikes were based on “lies and misinformation” at the U.N. Security Council.
Dmitry Sablin, a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament who was part of the delegation that met with Assad Monday, said the Syrian leader appeared upbeat and believed the airstrikes would unify the country.
Syrian opposition activists and first responders say a chemical attack on the town of Douma, near the capital, killed more than 40 people on April 7. A week later, the government regained full control of the town following a surrender deal with the rebels there, and on Sunday it deployed another 5,000 security forces in Douma.
Douma was the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, the target of a massive government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands.
Syrian officials and state media have boasted that the Western strikes failed, saying that Syrian air defenses intercepted most of the missiles. The front-page headline of the government daily Tishrin reads: “Our heroic army shoots down the missiles of aggression.”
The Pentagon says none of the missiles were shot down.
In an interview published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reached out to Russia, saying “we should join our efforts to promote a political process in Syria that would allow a way out of the crisis.” French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to strike a similar tone in a televised interview later Sunday.
France has continued to talk regularly with Russia even as East-West tensions have grown. Macron spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, hours before the Western missile strikes.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC he hopes there is no need for additional strikes against Syria, but that Britain and its allies will consider further action if Assad uses chemical weapons in the future.
Johnson told the BBC the airstrikes were proportionate and showed “the world has said enough is enough.”
“So far, thank heavens, the Assad regime has not been so foolish to launch another chemical weapons attack,” he said, adding that Britain and its allies “would study what the options were” in the event of another attack.
U.S. President Donald Trump meanwhile defended his use of the phrase “mission accomplished” to refer to the U.S.-led strikes in Syria.
Trump tweeted on Sunday that the mission was “so perfectly carried out, with such precision, that the only way the Fake News Media could demean was by my use of the term ‘Mission Accomplished.’”
“I knew they would seize on this but felt it is such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!” he wrote.
Trump’s use of the phrase Saturday had evoked comparisons with President George W. Bush, who in 2003 stood under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” as he declared that major combat operations had ended in Iraq six weeks after the invasion. The war dragged on for years.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Damascus contributed to this report.