August 26, 2013
West hardens stance after poison gas attack Obama is pressed to act after poison gas attack
David Cameron is pressing President Obama for a punitive missile strike to be launched within days against the Syrian regime in response to the chemical attacks on its own citizens.
General Sir Nick Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff, will meet his US opposite number, General Martin Dempsey, in Jordan today as the West hardens its stance against President Assad.
A one-off barrage of strikes, fired from warships in the Mediterranean, has emerged as the leading option. Support for that choice comes today from Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, who calls for “sharp, quick, specific and punishing” action against the Syrian regime. Writing in The Times, the former Liberal Democrat leader says that although he would “hate” an action that was not sanctioned by the United Nations, it was better than to let that body be further damaged by failure to respond to what could be the most “egregious breach” of human rights since it was founded.
The Assad regime said yesterday that it would allow UN inspectors to visit the scene of the poison gas attack on two Damascus suburbs last Wednesday, in which 355 people were killed. Its offer to allow a chemical weapons team into the suburbs that it says were gassed by rebels was dismissed by the US as “too late to be credible”.
A senior White House official said: “If the Syrian Government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN — five days ago. The evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”
That rejection — and an explicit allocation of blame for the gassing last week — encouraged hopes in London that the US was preparing to deliver a military response. They also chimed with comments yesterday from President Hollande of France.
Mr Obama and Mr Cameron spoke about Syria on Saturday night and are due to speak again today or tomorrow. A No 10 spokeswoman said: “We have moved from ‘should we respond?’ to ‘how do we respond?’ .” The action would be serious, she added.
The US has sent four warships to within striking distance of Syria but has appeared determined to delay direct intervention for as long as possible, in defiance of calls for action from Britain and other European allies.
Whitehall sources said last night that the mood was toughening in Washington. That contention gained credibility when a senior US administration official followed William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, in laying the blame for the atrocity at Assad’s feet.
“Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts gathered by open sources, the US intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” the official said.
President Obama is said to have become convinced that the most flagrant use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Halabja in 1988 cannot go unanswered.
Although No 10 insists that no decisions on military action have been taken, it is clear that a one-off barrage of strikes has emerged as the leading option. A Whitehall source said that the “very targeted attack”, launched within a week to ten days, would aim to “prevent and deter” Mr Assad from using chemical weapons again.
Supporters of the option concede that it would do little or nothing to alter the balance of forces between the Government and rebels, or bring closer the end of Syria’s civil war. The West would continue to push for political talks, the so-called Geneva 2, after the punitive strike, including at a meeting of the G20 in St Petersburg early next month, they said.
Mr Cameron is said to be acutely aware of the need to act while outrage at the attack is still fresh.
The prospect of the threat of a strike becoming bogged down in demands that it be sanctioned by the UN, and the possibility that another event could distract world attention, dictate an operation within days rather than weeks. A unilateral US-led strike on Syrian targets risks enraging its allies. Russia said yesterday that assigning blame before an official UN investigation would be a “tragic mistake”.
Iran warned of the “severe consequences for the White House” if it crossed a “red line” on Syria. “America knows the limitation of the red line,” Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, said.