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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Syria attack: Western Allies weigh military action

'We have proof' that chemical weapons were used, French president warns Syria

A child injured in shelling seen in a hospital in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Mohammed Badra / EPA
A child injured in shelling seen in a hospital in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Mohammed Badra / EPA

French and British leaders took steps on Thursday to join the US preparations for strikes against Syria in retaliation for last week’s gas attack.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared there was evidence the regime of Bashar Al Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma and Theresa May, the British prime minister, summoned a war cabinet to back the potential operation.

"We have the proof that chemical weapons were used, at least chlorine gas, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar Al Assad," Macron said during an interview on France's TF1 television in which he added the response would be "at a time of our choosing, when we judge it to be the most useful and the most effective".

The chemical weapons attack on Saturday near Damascus killed dozens of people, according to rescue workers at the scene. President Donald Trump has called for military action against Syria with planning overseen by Jim Mattis, the Defence Secretary and the US national security team.

President Donald Trump told reporters he was holding a series of meetings Thursday to discuss Syria.

“We’re looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation and we’ll see what happens folks. We’ll see what happens. It is too bad that the world puts us in a position like that."

Mrs May oversaw a cabinet dedicated to Syria on Thursday, where discussions revolved around planning for military action, even as she resisted pressure for a parliamentary vote as well. Officials have said Mrs May has indicated she wants Britain to join in any US-led strikes as the use of chemical weapons "cannot go unchallenged."

Every member of the cabinet was given time to make a contribution and the consensus was use of chemical weapons should not go unchallenged.

Ministers backed Mrs May’s continuing work with allies in the United States and France to coordinate an international response to the atrocity.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “condemn in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons. The latest attack was horrendous, killing dozens of people including many children.”

“We call on the Syrian regime and its backers to allow full and unimpeded access to international medical assistance and international monitoring. NATO considers the use of chemical weapons a threat to international peace and security, and those responsible must be held accountable.”

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the phone to both President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Officials in Ankara said Mr Erdogan discussed recent developments in Syria with both and would remain in close contact.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, however, said her country would not be a participant, even though Berlin also wanted Al Assad punished. “Germany will not take part in possible - there have not been any decisions yet, I want to stress that - military action,” she said.“But we support everything that is being done to show that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.”

The French leader was keen to stress that the fallout from the strikes would not add further to the turmoil of the region. "France will not allow any escalation that could harm stability in the region," he said. "Regimes that think they can do everything they want, including the worst things that violate international law, cannot be allowed to act."

The Elysee Palace has signalled for weeks its readiness to act against Damascus for atrocities inflicted in the fighting. "If France doesn't react now that the conditions are met, we would lose all credibility," Bruno Tertrais, a political scientist at the Foundation for Strategic Research said.

Sir John Sawyers, the former head of MI6, called for a much more punitive and targeted attack on Syria than the operation authorised by Mr Trump last year against a Syrian airbase. “It is quite clear that the deterrent impact of that strike [last year on the Shayrat airbase] was insufficient, because the Syrians have gone ahead and done it again,” he said.

Many of the MPs in the ruling Conservative party who voted against David Cameron’s attempt to participate in strikes in 2013 are on board for action this time, including the senior cabinet minister David Davis.

Sarah Wollaston, a prominent opponent of intervention who voted against action in 2013 said she supported military action. “In 2013 the shadow of Iraq and the consequences of military action were hanging very heavily and overshadowed that vote,” she said. “Whereas those who made warning at the time about the consequences of inaction have been proved to be correct. What is different this time is the fact that the escalation has now happened.”

Mrs May’s decision not to seek a recall of parliament is controversial in itself. The former Conservative deputy leader Kenneth Clarke called on Mrs May to rethink her stance. “If the cabinet this afternoon decides it is going to take part in military action, I think we could meet on Saturday,” he said. “I’d miss my football match but I think these are very important matters. You don’t just waive aside accountability to parliament because it is inconvenient. Saturday or Sunday you could sit.

It is believed more than 40 people died on Saturday after suffering symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, including wheezing, discoloured skin and foaming at the mouth. Syria and its ally Russia have both denied the accusations. The global chemical watchdog said it would deploy a team to investigate.

Russia reacted angrily Thursday after the UN's World Health Organisation said it wanted access to the area to verify the reports from its partners, which include Sams, that 70 people had died - including 43 who showed "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals".

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said the claims were a "provocation" to justify Western intervention and accused rebel groups of fabricating the deaths.

“Nobody has authorised Western leaders to take on the role of global police - simultaneously investigator, prosecution, judge and executor,” Maria Zakharova said.

“We call on all responsible members of the international community to seriously consider the consequences of such accusations, threats and the planned actions.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said its fact-finding team is en route to Syria to start work April 14.

As the Syria flag was raised over Douma on Thursday a top Syrian rebel said the gas attack had force his group to relinquish the stronghold.

"Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree" to a withdrawal from Douma, said high-ranking Jaish al-Islam member Yasser Dalwan.

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