Syria crisis: US signals intent to take action against Assad regime

The Guardian – Paul Lewis/Washington, Martin Chulov/Beirut, Julian Borger and Nicholas Watt – 26 August 2013

UN inspection begins as John Kerry says it is ‘undeniable’ that government was behind ‘obscene’ chemical weapon attack

The US secretary of state, John Kerry: ‘our sense of basic humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up.’ Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters

The US has issued the strongest signal yet that it intends to take military action against Syria, as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said on Monday it was “undeniable” that chemical weapons had been used in the country and vowed to respond.

In a powerful statement that gave every impression that the White House is moving towards some form of armed intervention, Kerry said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had committed a “moral obscenity” against his own people.

“Make no mistake,” Kerry said. “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapon against the world’s most vulnerable most people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny”.

The White House immediately echoed Kerry’s comments, and said it would release a US intelligence assessment about the use of chemical weapons in the coming days.

“The fact that chemical weapons were used on a widespread basis, against innocent civilians, with tragic results is undeniable,” said White House spokesman, Jay Carney. “And there is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable.”

He added that while the president is still considering the appropriate response, he had already concluded that the use of weapons constituted a “horrific violation of an international norm”.

The secretary of state’s rhetoric came towards the end of a day which saw the UK, France, Germany and Turkey join the calls for intervention. David Cameron cut short his holiday in Cornwall to return to work in Downing Street on Tuesday ahead of a meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday. However, Russia maintained its opposition to military action, with its foreign minister appearing to rule out becoming embroiled in any conflict.

Kerry said that Obama was liaising with world leaders to determine the appropriate response to an “indiscriminate use of chemical weapons” in Syria, but provided no timetable, and no further indication about what form any US-led action might take.

UN inspectors were able to access some of the alleged sites of chemical attacks in the east Ghouta region of Damascus on Monday, but had to cut short their trip after regime officials warned that they could not guarantee the inspectors’ safety.

The UN team collected some biological and environmental samples but refused to accept other samples of blood and urine that had already been taken by medical workers, presumably because they were unable to verify their source.

Earlier in the day two mortars landed near the Four Seasons hotel where the inspectors are staying before they set off for east Ghouta, and on the way there their convoy was hit by gunfire as they crossed the buffer zone from the regime-controlled centre of Damascus to the rebel-held east of the city.

The presence of the inspectors had been a central demand of the UN and their belated permission to enter the affected areas did little to calm the situation.

A build-up of military aircraft on RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus added to suggestions that planning had reached a developed stage. With Russia and China likely to block a UN resolution, the UK and US have both signalled that they are prepared to act without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN’s “responsibility to protect”.

Earlier the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was outspoken over the necessity to act if his inspectors found evidence of chemical weapons use. “If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity,” he said.

Under the terms of its mandate negotiated in the security council, the UN inspection team under Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom, can determine whether chemical agents have been used, but not who has used them.

Kerry said that regardless of the outcome of the UN weapons inspections, the US had already concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons. “Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” he said “What is before us today is real. And it is compelling.”

Chemical weapons could only have been used by Assad’s forces, which has “custody” over chemical weapons in the country, Kerry said. He added that failure to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors for five days, and its decision to shell the affected neighbourhoods, “destroying evidence”, indicated an attempt to conceal the truth. “That is not the behaviour of a government that is has nothing to hide,” he said. “That is not the behaviour of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons”.

“Our sense of basic humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up,” Kerry said. He said the decision to allow weapons inspectors to the scene of the attack on Monday “is too late, and is too late to be credible”.

“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry said. “It defies any code of morality. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standards, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable,” Kerry said, adding that the US and its allies had gathered more information about the atrocity which it would release in the “days ahead”.

In Britain, No 10 said that the prime minister earlier clashed with Vladimir Putin over whether the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. In a telephone conversation, the Russian president said Moscow had no evidence as to whether such an attack had taken place – or who was responsible – after Cameron said there was “little doubt” that the Syrian regime was responsible.

Nick Clegg has cancelled a trip to Afghanistan to allow him to attend the NSC amid a growing expectation that parliament could be recalled before the end of the week to allow MPs to debate developments in Syria.

William Hague, who insisted Britain shared a common position with the US and France, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have tried those other methods – the diplomatic methods – and we will continue to try those. But they have failed so far.”

Meanwhile, General Sir Nick Houghton, the chief of the UK defence staff, was to discuss military options with his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, and other allied military chiefs at a military summit in the Jordanian capital Amman.

On Monday night, British government sources were downplaying expectations that a strike could be imminent. They said that Britain and the US wanted to consider the findings of the UN weapons inspectors with care before deciding whether to act. Downing Street said it would consult attorney general Dominic Grieve on the legalities of intervention.

However, it seemed unlikely on Monday night that the findings of the UN inspection team would heal the deep rift over Syria in the UN security council. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be “a crude violation of international law.” He compared the situation to the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Asked what Russian would do if missile strikes were launched, he appeared to rule out military retaliation, saying Russia is “not planning to go to war with anyone”.

In a reminder of the potential for any military action to escalate across the Middle East, Israel warned that it would hit back if there were any Syrian reprisals in the wake of western air strikes. The Israeli minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said on Monday: “If we are under attack, we will protect ourselves and we will act decisively.”

European leaders showed every sign of moving towards a military attack against the Assad regime. In Paris, France’s president, Francois Hollande, said it was unthinkable that the international community would fail to respond to the use of chemical weapons, telling the Parisien newspaper: “Everything will be decided this week.”

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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