Kerry says US has evidence of sarin gas use in Syria
Saudi minister calls for world community to take action that ‘puts a halt to the tragedy’
US President Barack Obama meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in Syria. Photograph: Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
US secretary of state John Kerry today asserted the United States has evidence of sarin gas use in Syria and that the “case is building” for a military attack.
He made the statement after US president Barack Obama delayed an imminent military strike by deciding to consult Congress.
Mr Kerry said the administration learned of the sarin use through samples of hair and blood provided to Washington by first responders in Damascus.
He also said he is confident that Congress will give Mr Obama its backing for a military strike against Syria. But the former senator also said the president has authority to act on his own if Congress doesn’t give its approval.
Saudi Arabia tonight called on the world community to take all necessary steps to deter Syrian government violence.
“The time has come to call on the world community to bear its responsibility and take the deterrent measure that puts a halt to the tragedy,” foreign minister Saud al-Faisal told an Arab League meeting in Cairo.
Meanwhile, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the Syrian government, a strong ally of Tehran, had carried out chemical weapons attacks against its own people, the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency reported today.
“The people have been the target of chemical attacks by their own government and now they must also wait for an attack by foreigners,” Mr Rafsanjani said. “The people of Syria have seen much damage in these two years.”
Syria today hailed an “historic American retreat” after Mr Obama’s decision to seek the approval of Congress before launching an attack.
As Mr Obama stepped back from the brink, France said it could not act alone in punishing president Bashar al-Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack, making it the last remaining top Western ally to hesitate about bombing Syria.
“Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication, the beginning of the historic American retreat,” Syria’s official al-Thawra newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
The US president last night said he would seek congressional consent before taking military action against Damascus for the August 21st attack which he blames on Assad’s forces - a decision likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad denounced any armed Western move against his government. “A decision to wage war on Syria is a criminal decision and an incorrect decision. We are confident that we will be victorious,” he told reporters outside a hotel in Damascus.
However, Syria’s opposition coalition called on the US congress to grant approval for military action and said any intervention should be accompanied with more arms for the rebels.
Mr Obama made his surprise announcement in a gamble that will test his ability to project American strength abroad and deploy his own power at home.
Before he put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a US assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and UN inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence of a chemical weapons attack that US officials say killed 1,429 people in rebel-held areas.
The United States had been expected to lead the strike soon, backed up by its NATO allies Britain and France. However, the Westminster parliament voted last Thursday against any British involvement and France said on Sunday it would await the U.S. Congress’s decision.
“France cannot go it alone,” interior minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1 radio. “We need a coalition.”
France, which ruled Syria for more than two decades until the 1940s, has, like the United States and Britain, the military strength to blitz the country in response to the poison gas attack on areas around Damascus, which the Syrian government has accused the rebels of staging.
Mr Valls said Mr Obama’s announcement had created “a new situation” which meant France would have to wait “for the end of this new phase”.
President Francois Hollande reaffirmed to Mr Obama yesterday his will to punish Syria but has come under increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.
Last month’s attack was the deadliest incident of the Syrian civil war and the world’s worst use of chemical arms since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
Mr Obama’s credibility had already been called into question for not punishing Assad over earlier alleged gas attacks, and he is under pressure to act now that he believes Damascus has crossed what he once described as a “red line”.
In the Vatican City, Pope Francis called for a negotiated solution to the conflict in Syria and announced he would lead a worldwide day of prayer for peace in the country on Saturday.
Syria and its main ally, Russia, say rebels carried out the gas attack as a ploy to draw in foreign military intervention. Moscow has repeatedly used its U.N. Security Council veto to block action against Syria and says any attack would be illegal and only inflame the civil war there.
“I am convinced that (the chemical attack) is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said last night.