U.S. strikes destroyed Syrian means to deliver chemical weapons: admiral

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations against Syria while in the Mediterranean Sea. Ford Williams/Courtesy U.S. Navy

COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - U.S. Navy Admiral Michelle Howard said on Saturday U.S. cruise missile strikes on an air base in Syria had destroyed the means to deliver chemical weapons from that base, and the U.S. military remained ready to carry out further strikes if needed.

Howard, the four-star officer who leads U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, told Reuters the United States had decided to launch the strikes after the United Nations failed to pass a resolution condemning a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed scores of people in rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun.

Washington has blamed the Syrian government for the attack on Tuesday. The Syrian government has strongly denied responsibility and blamed the deaths on leaks from a rebel chemical arms store it says was hit by a Syrian air strike.

"We conducted strikes against an air field which was the means by which the chemicals were launched into the air. Those means don't exist now," Howard said in an interview during a missile defense event in Cologne.

"We saw the misuse of chemical weapons and said, 'OK, we need to send a very clear message'".

Asked about the U.S. military's plan for how to deal with any potential further attacks, Howard said the military was ready to respond if other civilian options failed.

"As the civilian leadership works through what their options are, if other options don't pan out, then it's generally the military that gets asked to do something."

Howard declined to give any details about the flight path of the missiles, or the U.S. military assessment of the damage caused, but said she was confident the strikes had hit their intended target.

"The intention was to take out the airfield and to remove the means of the delivery of chemical weapons. I feel that was accomplished," she said.

The cruise missiles were launched by two ships in the European region, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, in close coordination with U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East.

Howard lauded the quick action taken by the commanders and crews of the two ships in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

Howard said the integration of the strikes was "flawless" and showed the ability of the U.S. Navy to project power around the world.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by David Evans)