Initial Western intelligence finds Syrian forces used chemical weapons - sources

Obama in no rush to war says incident is ’big event of grave concern’

A Syrian refugee girl looks from a tent at the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk. The number of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland reached 1 million today. Photograph: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

A Syrian refugee girl looks from a tent at the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk. The number of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland reached 1 million today. Photograph: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

 

US and allied intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces in an attack near Damascus this week, likely with high-level approval from the government of president Bashar al-Assad, according to American and European security sources.

The early intelligence finding could increase pressure for action by US president Barack Obama, who has made clear that he plans to tread cautiously even as his aides air their differences in a debate over possible military responses to the Syrian government.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment was preliminary and, at this stage, they were still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or even longer to gather.

In his first public comments since Wednesday’s attack in the Damascus suburbs, Mr Obama called the incident “very troublesome” and a “big event of grave concern” but made clear he was in no rush to get war-weary Americans entangled in another Middle East conflict.

Mr Obama’s wary response, which underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old civil war, came as senior US officials weighed choices ranging from increased international sanctions to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Mr Assad’s forces, administration sources said.

A high-level meeting of members of Mr Obama’s National Security Council, the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies was held at the White House late yesterday but made no decisions on what to recommend, officials said, and further discussions were planned.

One US official acknowledged that the participants aired “differing viewpoints” but pushed back against the notion that the administration - whose Syria policymaking has been marked by internal dissent in the past - was deeply sharply divided on a possible US response. “It’s not like people were screaming at each other,” the official said.

International powers, including Russia, have urged Mr Assad to cooperate with a UN inspection team that arrived on Sunday to pursue earlier allegations of chemical weapons attacks. However, there was no public response from the Syrian government, whose forces have been pounding the Damascus region for days, making any mission by the international experts perilous - as well as possibly destroying evidence.

Syria denies being responsible and has in the past accused rebels of using chemical weapons. While the preliminary US assessment was that Mr Assed loyalists carried out Wednesday’s chemical attack with high level authorisation, one US source closely monitoring events in the region said it was also possible that a local commander decided on his own to use gas in advance of a ground assault. The commander may have been under pressure from top echelons to clear rebels from the area and protect his own troops against rebel counter-attacks, the source said.

“What we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event, of grave concern,” Mr Obama said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” program that aired today, as anti-Assad rebels braved the front lines around Damascus to smuggle tissue samples to UN inspectors from victims of Wednesday’s apparent mass poisoning.

But when pressed about his comment a year ago that chemical weapons use in Syria would cross a “red line,” Mr Obama - who was on a two-day bus tour of the Northeast - expressed caution.

At Thursday’s White House meeting, which lasted more than three hours, Obama’s aides had a “robust discussion” of the diplomatic and military options available to the president, US officials said.

Among the military options are targeted cruise missile strikes on Syrian military units believed responsible for chemical attacks or on Mr Assad’s air force and ballistic missile sites.

Seen as more risky would be a sustained air campaign against Mr Assad’s forces, such as the one used in Libya in 2011. A White House spokesman reiterated Obama’s position that he did not intend to put “boots on the ground,” and an administration official said Thursday’s White House meeting also steered clear of the idea of enforcing a “no-fly” zone there, the official said.

Meanwhile Syria’s opposition said today it would ensure the safety of UN chemical weapons inspectors in areas of Syria it controls and said it was critical that they reached the site of an alleged gas attack near Damascus within 48 hours.

“We will ensure the safety of the UN.. team ... It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours,” Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told a news conference in Istanbul.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said at a diplomatic forum in Seoul today that he could “think of no good reason why any party, either government or opposition forces, would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter.“ The remarks came a day after Mr Ban called for the inspectors “to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident.“

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said today that the Syrian government was almost surely behind the suspected chemical weapons attack. “I know that some people in the world would like to say that this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria,“ he said. “I think the chances of that are vanishingly small and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime.”

Mr Hague also said that time was of the essence in getting UN weapons inspectors to the site near Damascus. “It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,“ he said. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”.

Mr Hague did not speak of using force, as the French have done, if the government was found to be behind the attack. But he said it was “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore.”

He said Britain would hold urgent talks today with Mr Ban of the UN; the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, whom he had spoken to Thursday night; and the Qatari foreign minister, Khaled al-Attiyah.

The comments came as the number of registered child refugees fleeing Syria’s violence has topped the one million mark, two UN agencies have said.

The refugee and children’s agencies say the grim milestone - half of all the nearly two million registered refugees are children - is not just another statistic.

Anthony Lake, head of the UN children’s agency Unicef said in a statement today that the millionth child refugee is “a real child ripped from home, maybe even a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend”.

Mr Lake and Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency, said about 7,000 children are among the more than 100,000 killed in the unrest in Syria, which began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war.

Reuters/New York Times