Bloomberg News

World Powers Seek Syria Action as UN Probes Allegations

August 26, 2013

U.S. Says Syria Likely Used Chemical Arms

A Syrian rebel tries on a gas mask seized from a Syrian army factory in the northwestern province of Idlib, July 18, 2013. Photographer: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

World leaders from Washington to Istanbul called for action to punish Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for what they said was his use of chemical weapons as United Nations inspectors attempted to probe the allegations.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain is convinced Assad was behind an Aug. 21 attack on a Damascus suburb and that there was agreement with the U.S. and France on the need to respond. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country will join a “coalition” against Syria if the UN fails to act.

“I’m putting here the case that the Assad regime did this, and that the use of chemical weapons on a large scale like this cannot go unaddressed,” Hague told BBC Radio 4. Assad has denied the accusation.

Related: Forces Ready to Strike as Response to Chemical Allegations Weighed

As inspectors started their investigation of some of the areas allegedly targeted, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence said the use of chemicals was “clear,” while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was “obvious” the weapons had been used and that the “massacre’s origin comes from the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

An attempt by the UN officials to visit the site of the attack was halted by sniper fire, the spokesperson for the Secretary-General said in an e-mailed statement. Syrian authorities and opposition activists blamed each other for the gunfire. The UN team plans to return to area.

‘Drums of War’

Officials in Russia and Iran said UN inspectors must be allowed to carry out their work. Any military action may have “extremely dangerous” consequences for the region and recent U.S. statements have set off “deep alarm” in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone conversation yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its website.

West Texas Intermediate crude traded near a four-day high on concern Syria may be attacked and amid signs of economic recovery in Europe. WTI for October delivery climbed as much as 95 cents to $107.37 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange and was at $106.51 at 12:06 a.m. London time. Prices are up 16 percent in 2013.

Hossein Sheikholeslam, the Iranian parliament’s director-general for international affairs, said nations are “beating the drums of war.” He told the state-run Fars news agency that Israel risks being the “victim” if any attempt is made to attack Syria.

The global rhetoric came after a rocket attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last week that the Syrian opposition says killed more than 1,300 from toxic gas. Assad and the opposition traded accusations over chemical weapons use.

Without UN Backing

“What happened in Syria five days ago is beyond our worst imagination -- the use of chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction,” Steinitz told journalists today at a Jerusalem briefing. “The world can’t allow this to happen. The world can’t allow this to proceed.”

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said there was a “very high probability” that chemical weapons were used and that such an attack “can’t go without consequences.”

The U.K.’s Hague and Turkey’s Davutoglu signaled that action may be taken even without the backing of the UN Security Council.

“Is it possible to respond without complete agreement on the security council? I would argue yes it is,” Hague said. “Other countries including France are very clear that we can’t allow the idea that chemical weapons in the 21st century can can be used with impunity.”

‘Nonsense’

Assad has dismissed the accusations as “nonsense,” telling Russian newspaper Izvestia the allegations were “politicized.” The U.S. will be faced with “failure” if it decides on the military option, Assad said. “America has waged many wars, but has never been able to achieve its political objectives from any of them,” Assad said in the interview.

A team of UN inspectors was already in Syria to probe previous claims of chemical weapons use when the Ghouta attack happened. Some members of that team have now entered Moadamiya, a town in the area, Skynews Arabiya reported today.

The probe five days after the purported attack is too late because constant shelling of the area could have corrupted or destroyed evidence, according to a senior U.S. administration official in an e-mailed statement.

Pressure Building

Pressure is building on President Barack Obama to respond, with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling for a limited military response by the U.S. and its allies. The U.S., the U.K. and France are discussing options.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on MSNBC, said Obama doesn’t need authorization from Congress to begin military action “but I do hope they come for one.” He predicted that as soon as lawmakers get back from their summer recess on Sept. 9, Congress “will take up an authorization for this. It’s the right thing to do.”

U.S. intelligence officials and international partners have concluded that chemicals were used, based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured in the Aug. 21 attacks, witness accounts and other facts gathered, according to the U.S. statement.

‘Little Doubt’

“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” according to the official’s statement. The statement was released on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Obama said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a U.S. “red line.” The U.S. now has four destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, compared with three that have been there for months, according to a U.S. official familiar with the forces there. None of the ships -- the USS Gravely, the USS Barry, the USS Mahan and the USS Ramage -- has been assigned a mission, the official said.

Assad’s forces attempted to cover up evidence by delaying inspections, a senior U.S. official said today. Obama has discussed the matter with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to speak with his counterparts in the U.K. and France shortly, the U.S. official said.

At a news conference in Jakarta today, Hagel declined to discuss possible action on Syria, saying that until “we are absolutely confident of what happened in Syria, I’m not going to comment” on possible consequences of either taking military action or choosing not to act.

To contact the reporters on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai at dabunasr@bloomberg.net; Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net; Silla Brush in Washington at sbrush@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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