Sydney Morning Herald — August 26, 2013
A war of words erupted on Sunday over Syria as Washington said it was ready to take action over chemical weapons attacks and Tehran warned US intervention would carry “harsh consequences”.
Pressure mounted on Damascus to allow a UN probe of chemical attacks, with French President Francois Hollande saying evidence indicated the regime in war-ravaged Syria was to blame and Israel demanding action against its neighbour.
The Al-Nusra Front, a fierce Al-Qaeda-linked group fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, vowed revenge against villages of the Syrian president’s minority Alawite community.
Doctors Without Borders said 355 people died this week of “neurotoxic” symptoms, after Syria’s opposition claimed regime forces unleashed chemicals east and southwest of Damascus on Wednesday causing more than 1300 deaths.
If confirmed, it would be the deadliest use of chemical agents since late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels in the 1980s.
As international outrage over the attacks grew, the Syrian government denied it used chemical weapons and said it had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces. Russia, an ally of the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, accused the rebels of using the weapons, but few analysts believe they have the supplies or ability to do so.
Determining the nature of the attack could affect the course of Western involvement in the war, and the US, Russia and others have called for a United Nations team, sent to Syria to investigate past suspected chemical weapons use, to be given access to the site. UN disarmament chief Angela Kane arrived in Damascus to push for the team to have access.
US President Barack Obama said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was a “red line” that could trigger Western intervention.
On Sunday a strident warning came from Washington’s archfoe Iran.
“If the United States crosses this red line, there will be harsh consequences for the White House,” armed forces deputy chief of staff Massoud Jazayeri said.
His comments come a day after Obama held a rare meeting with his top aides and discussed Syria by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr Cameron’s office said the two leaders agreed the use of chemical weapons would “merit a serious response” – echoing French calls.
On Sunday US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the US military was “prepared to exercise whatever option” against Syria but intelligence was still being evaluated.
Syria denies it used chemical weapons and has reportedly said it will work with UN inspectors who have been on the ground for a week to probe three other suspect sites.
“The Syrian government will cooperate with the United Nations mission now in Syria to create the conditions for a visit to zones where terrorist groups have carried out attacks with chemical weapons,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
He said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem gave him the pledge during a phone conversation but there was no independent confirmation.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told Mr Muallem this week that if Syria has “nothing to hide” it should let the UN experts inspect the site before evidence is destroyed.
On a visit to Malaysia, Mr Hagel said the US Defence Department had prepared “options for all contingencies” at Obama’s request.
“Again, we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options,” he added.
Mr Obama and Mr Cameron “are both gravely concerned by . . . increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people,” the British leader’s office said.
Several world leaders have said they believe Syria’s regime is behind the chemical attacks and are demanding it gives the inspectors unfettered access.
Mr Hollande said there was “a body of evidence indicating that the August 21 attack was chemical in nature, and that everything led to the belief that the Syrian regime was responsible for this unspeakable act”.
In Israel, President Shimon Peres called for international efforts to “take out” chemical weapons in Syria as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will pull the “trigger” if needed to protect its people.
As Syria and its opponents traded accusations on who used chemicals, the radical Al-Nusra Front vowed punitive action.
“The Alawite villages will pay the price for each chemical rocket that struck our people in Damascus,” the group’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said in an audio message posted online.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule flared in March 2011, the UN says.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said medical centres it supported near the site of the suspected chemical weapons attack had received more than 3000 patients showing symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic nerve agents on the morning of the reported attack.
Of those, 355 died, according to the group, .
The statement was the first issued by an international organisation working in Syria about last week’s attack in the suburbs north-east the capital.
MSF said it could not confirm what substances caused the symptoms it reported, or who was responsible for the attack, but its report lent credibility to other accounts by witnesses and to the opposition’s estimates of the dead.
The aid group said the symptoms were reported by three medical facilities it supported in the area of the reported attack.
Its statement said that, in three hours last Wednesday morning, the three clinics received about 3600 patents who had symptoms indicating exposure to a chemical nerve agent, including breathing problems, dilated pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and blurred vision. Many of the medics in the centres also experienced some symptoms, said Stephen Cornish, one of the group’s executive directors. One medic died.
”When you put these elements together, what it suggests to us is a neurotoxic agent,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had confirmed the deaths of 322 people, including 54 children, 82 women, 16 people who could not be identified and dozens of rebel fighters. The British-based group said its activists had visited the area, spoken to residents and collected medical reports and videos that indicated most of the dead were killed by exposure to toxic gas.
While the Syrian government has not responded to the demands to let inspectors visit the site, on Saturday it stepped up its efforts to blame rebels for the attack, announcing on state-run television that its soldiers had found a tunnel filled with chemical compounds near the attack site and that some of the soldiers were choking and had to be evacuated.