US rebuffs Syria’s offer to UN inspectors
Decision to allow inspection of site of suspected chemical weapons attack ‘too late’
Columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighbourhood, east of Damascus, yesterday. Syria reached an agreement with the United Nations yesterday to allow a team of experts to visit the site of alleged chemical weapons attacks last week outside Damascus. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
A senior Obama administration official said there was “very little doubt” that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in a rebel-held eastern suburb of Syria’s capital Damascus on Wednesday and that the Syrian president’s decision to allow UN inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible”.
The official accused the Syrian government of an “indiscriminate use of chemical weapons” and said the delay in allowing inspectors to visit the site was to allow the evidence to decay.
The UN confirmed that Syria had promised to observe a ceasefire at the site of the attack, believed to have killed as many as 1,400 people, in the suburbs of Damascus while inspectors begin “on-site fact-finding activities”.
UN inspectors, led by Prof Aake Sellstroem, are set to begin investigations today after Damascus and the UN reached agreement to allow for an examination of the site in the suburb of Ghouta.
Followed a warning
The agreement followed a warning by Syria’s information minister Omran Zoabi that any US military intervention in the country’s conflict would “create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East”.
The US has said it believes that chemical weapons were used based on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured and witness accounts”.
The Obama administration official ruled out an immediate military response, despite President Barack Obama warning almost a year ago that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for his government and the US previously concluding that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in earlier incidents.
Iran, another of Assad’s allies, raised concerns about possible western intervention, saying: “If the United States crosses this red line, there will be harsh consequences for the White House. ”
The suspected use of chemical weapons pushes the US and her allies closer to intervention. Mr Obama met security advisers on Saturday to consider a military response, while his secretary of defence Chuck Hagel said yesterday that the US was still assessing intelligence on the attack.
“When we have more information, that answer will become clear,” said Mr Hagel, when asked whether military action against Syria was a matter of when, not if.
Rising tensions over the escalation of the bloody conflict has led the US to increase its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean to four destroyers, each carrying long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of striking Syria.
Last week’s attack is suspected of being the deadliest single incident of the two-year civil war which has killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011 and appears to be the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s military forces gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.