Syria crisis: US deploys warship as hospitals report poison gas symptoms/Cameron and Obama move west closer to intervention

The Guardian – Martin Chulov in Beirut – Saturday 24 August 2013


Photo: US Navy 090115-N-9758L-620 Guided-missile destroyers

Extra missile warship deployed to Mediterranean as chiefs of staff head to Jordan for summit

The US navy is deploying an extra missile warship to the eastern Mediterranean ahead of a summit to debate last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, as calls mount for a military response.

The summit, to be held in Jordan’s capital Amman in the first half of the week, has been called as a consensus emerges that the nerve agent sarin was the cause of hundreds of deaths in rebel-held east Damascus early on Thursday.

Biological samples taken from victims and survivors of the attack have now been passed to western officials in Jordan after having been smuggled out of Syria over the past 72 hours. Unmarked questionnaires have been distributed to officials in the three most affected communities, asking for forensic and environmental details, as well as for organ tissue and clothing worn by victims. A final death toll has not been established, with estimates ranging from several hundred to more than 1,400.

Three hospitals in Syria’s Damascus governorate which are supported by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins sans Frontières reported that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, 21 August. Of those patients, 355 are reported to have died.

Officials, who have not identified themselves but claim to be part of an international response, have also made phone contact with rebel officials, seeking photographs of the rockets that are thought to have carried the gas. The remains of 20 such rockets have been found in the affected areas, activists and local residents say. Many remain mostly intact, suggesting that they did not detonate on impact and potentially dispersed gas before hitting the ground.

Survivors spoken to by the Observer last week say they heard the rockets whistling in but they did not detonate. Several have been photographed half buried in bitumen, which suggests that they did not carry a warhead or, if they did, it failed to explode.

France, Britain and Turkey have blamed the Syrian regime for the attack, which came as its military forces were advancing into the area. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Saturday that “all the information at our disposal converges to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the [regime of Bashar al-Assad] is responsible”. The foreign secretary, William Hague, said last week that “this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime” and it was “not something that a humane or civilised world can ignore”. Barack Obama has described the incident as “grave” and asked intelligence officials to prepare a detailed assessment.

Syria has continued to deny responsibility as the UN’s disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus to try to negotiate access to the site of the attack for an inspection team that was sent to investigate three earlier alleged attacks. The team has been in the capital for the past six days and has been pressing for permission to make the journey – only a short distance from their hotel – for the past 72 hours. Rebel groups in the area say that they will guarantee safe passage. However, the Syrian government has not agreed and the UN fears that the journey is unsafe without a negotiated agreement. Syrian state television said on Saturday that its forces had found tunnels in rebel areas in which chemicals were stored.

The images of dead and dying in the attack have caught the attention of regional governments like nothing else in the two-and-a-half year conflict. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, will travel to Jordan along with the head of the US central command, General Lloyd Austin, and chiefs of staff from Turkey, Britain, France, Qatar, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Canada.

The addition of a US destroyer takes to four the US Mediterranean flotilla, one more than normal. US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said no decision has been made to use the warships in operations against Syria. Speaking on Friday, officials in Washington said no response to Syria would involve sending troops into the country. Two of Syria’s three main allies, Russia and Iran, have supported calls for a transparent and credible inquiry into the attack. Both accuse rebel groups of having carried out the atrocity. The Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, has remained silent since Thursday.

Read entire article here

***UPDATE***

Aug 24, 2013

Syria: Cameron and Obama move west closer to intervention

David Cameron and Barack Obama moved the west closer to military intervention in Syria on Saturday as they agreed that last week’s alleged chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime had taken the crisis into a new phase that merited a “serious response”.

In a phone call that lasted 40 minutes, the two leaders are understood to have concluded that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was almost certainly responsible for the murderous assault that is believed to have killed as many as 1,400 people in Damascus in the middle of last week. Cameron was speaking from his holiday in Cornwall.

The prime minister and US president said time was running out for Assad to allow UN weapons inspectors into the areas where the attack took place. Government sources said the two leaders agreed that all options should be kept open, both to end the suffering of the Syrian people and to make clear that the west could not stand by as chemical weapons were used on innocent civilians.

The dramatic upping of the stakes came after the international medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) reported that three hospitals in Damascus had received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, 21 August. Of those patients, 355 are reported to have died.

Dr Bart Janssens, MSF’s director of operations, said: “Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress.”

He said the reported symptoms strongly indicated “mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Saturday that “all the information at our disposal converges to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the [Assad regime] is responsible”.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said last week that “this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime” and “not something that a humane or civilised world can ignore”.

Obama has been reluctant to commit American forces to what has become a bitter and protracted civil war. However, he said last year that use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” triggering a more robust US response. It was confirmed on Saturday that the US navy is deploying an extra missile warship to the eastern Mediterranean before a summit to debate the massacre.

The summit will be held in Jordan’s capital, Amman, in the first half of the week as a consensus hardens that the nerve agent sarin was used in the attack in rebel-held east Damascus early on Thursday. Biological samples taken from victims of the attack have been passed to western officials in Jordan after having been smuggled out of Syria over the past 72 hours. Questionnaires have been distributed to officials in the three most affected communities, asking for scientific and environmental details, as well as for organ tissue and clothing worn by victims.

Officials, who have not identified themselves but claim to be part of an international response, have also made phone contact with rebel officials, seeking photographs of the rockets that are thought to have carried the gas. France, Britain and Turkey have blamed the Syrian regime for the attack, which came as its military forces were advancing into the area.

Syria has continued to deny responsibility as the UN’s disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus to try to negotiate access to the site of the attack for an inspection team that was sent to investigate three earlier alleged attacks. The team has been in the capital for the past six days and has been pressing for permission to make the journey – only a short distance from its hotel.

Rebel groups in the area say that they will guarantee safe passage. However, the Syrian government has not agreed and the UN fears that the journey is unsafe without a negotiated agreement. Syrian state television said on Saturday that its forces had found tunnels in rebel areas in which chemicals were stored.

The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, will travel to Jordan along with the head of the US central command, General Lloyd Austin, and chiefs of staff from Turkey, Britain, France, Qatar, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Italy and Canada.

The addition of a US destroyer takes to four the US Mediterranean flotilla, one more than normal. US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said no decision has been made to use the warships in operations against Syria. Speaking on Friday, officials in Washington said no response to Syria would involve sending troops into the country. Two of Syria’s three main allies, Russia and Iran, have supported calls for a transparent and credible inquiry into the attack.

Both accuse rebel groups of having carried out the atrocity. The Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, has remained silent since Thursday.

Read entire article here

Posted by Teri Perticone

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