US considers response to ‘red line’ action

Military urges caution amid fears of US becoming embroiled in unclear conflict

  Citizens mourning over the bodies of Syrian men after the alleged  gas attack on Arbeen town, Damascus. Photograph: AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen

Citizens mourning over the bodies of Syrian men after the alleged gas attack on Arbeen town, Damascus. Photograph: AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen

Fri, Aug 23, 2013, 01:00

The US held a flurry of diplomatic talks yesterday to discuss possible new action against the Syrian government amid mounting international concern over alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Though it stressed it had still not yet seen conclusive proof of chemical weapon use, the US state department revealed that secretary of state John Kerry had held seven calls with overseas counterparts yesterday, and had taken part in a national security council meeting at the White House.

Washington is split over how to respond to the latest attack, which it believes may have killed between 1,000 and 1,800 people. Military leaders such as John Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have urged caution for fear of becoming further embroiled in a Middle East conflict where US allies are unclear.

Others, such as UN ambassador Susan Rice, are thought to be keen to move beyond the limited supply of weapons to rebel forces sanctioned by President Barack Obama after the US first determined the Syrian government used chemical weapons earlier this summer.

‘Outrageous escalation’
“Our red line was the use of chemical weapons. That was crossed a couple of months ago and the president took action,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “If these [new] reports are true it would be an outrageous escalation in the use of chemical weapons by the regime, and there would be a range of further options for us to take.”

She said Mr Kerry spoke by phone with the leader of the Syrian national coalition, the UN secretary general and foreign ministers from France, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and the EU.

“The president has ordered the intelligence community to urgently gather information. We are unable to determine conclusively chemical weapons use but we are doing everything possible to nail down the facts.”

Earlier, France had raised the prospect of the use of force against the Syrian government if allegations of its use of chemical weapons are proved.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said yesterday that if the regime was shown to be responsible for the massacre, “we need a reaction by the international community – a reaction of force”. He ruled out deployment of foreign ground troops but “a reaction that can take a form, I don’t want to be more precise, of force” – raising the possibility of air strikes by western powers.

Hundreds of civilians are known to have died in the attack on Ghouta, a rebel-held area in the Damascus suburbs, and the death toll continues to rise as more bodies are found.

In London, a foreign office spokeswoman said the UK would not rule out any option. “Yesterday saw a serious escalation in the crisis in Syria,” she said. “Our immediate priority is to verify the facts and ensure the UN team is granted access to investigate these latest reports. We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed. However, the prime minister and foreign secretary have said many times we cannot rule out any option, in accordance with international law, that might save innocent lives in Syria.”

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared the apparent gas attack crossed “all red lines” and criticised international inaction, as well as the UN Security Council, which he said “has not even been able to take a decision”.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition has said the Ghouta attack was just the latest in a series of chemical weapons atrocities, and joined international calls for investigators to be given immediate access.
– (Guardian service)