x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US mulls Syria options as chemical weapons consensus grows

Iran's president issues his first confirmation that chemical warfare had taken place, while Doctors Without Borders says 3,600 patients display 'neurotoxic symptoms'. Phil Sands reports

A Free Syrian Army fighter smokes a cigarette as he uses a mirror to monitor movements of forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad in Aleppo on Saturday. Molhem Barakat / Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter smokes a cigarette as he uses a mirror to monitor movements of forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad in Aleppo on Saturday. Molhem Barakat / Reuters

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // Barack Obama yesterday weighed possible military action in Syria, amid a growing consensus that chemical weapons were used in Wednesday's deadly attacks on suburbs of Damascus.

Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, issued his first confirmation that chemical warfare had taken place, while Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 3,600 patients displaying "neurotoxic symptoms" had been admitted to Syrian hospitals. MSF said 355 of those patients had died.

In Washington, Mr Obama's national security team gathered to discuss evidence of chemical attacks taking place, and what steps might follow if they were confirmed.

Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, said forces were being moved in position to carry out a military strike, should one be ordered.

In Tehran, Mr Rouhani stopped short of saying who he thought had used chemical weapons but, in remarks published by the ISNA news agency, said people had been killed by chemical attacks.

"Many of the innocent people of Syria have been injured and martyred by chemical agents and this is unfortunate," Mr Rouhani said.

Iran is a key ally and military partner of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

"We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons, because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons," Mr Rouhani said, referring to its war with Iraq during the 1980s.

Iran's foreign ministry said Tehran believed rebels were behind the attacks, echoing remarks by Russia, another key ally of the Syrian regime.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, warned against US military involvement.

"No international licence exists for military intervention in Syria," Mr Araqchi was quoted as saying by ISNA.

"We hope that White House officials are wise enough to not enter such a dangerous battle. Statements of provocation by American military officials or actions such as sending warships do not help solve the issue and will make the region's situation more dangerous."

Meanwhile, Syrian state media said yesterday regime soldiers had "suffocated" on poison gas during ongoing military operations in eastern Damascus, including air strikes on rebel-held areas.

"An army unit is surrounding a sector of Jobar where terrorists used chemical weapons," state television reported, saying rebels had "resorted to chemical weapons after the successes of the Syrian army in recent days".

The Syria opposition leaders denied they had used chemical weapons and called the accusations "lies from the Assad regime".

The accusations were "a desperate bid to divert attention from its repeated crimes and methods against Syrian civilians," the Syrian National Coalition said.

Previously Syrian officials and state media had avoided mention of chemical-weapons use in the Damascus suburbs - not even blaming the rebels - except to deny opposition reports it had fired chemical rockets there.

Consequently, there is now a broad consensus on both sides of the conflict that poison gas has been used in recent attacks around the capital.

What there is no agreement on, however, is who released the chemical agents believed to have killed hundreds of people in eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday.

A team of UN chemical weapons experts, currently in Damascus, has not inspected the scene of the attacks and, as such, there remains no independent investigation into the use of chemical munitions.

Angela Kane, the UN disarmament envoy, arrived in the Syrian capital yesterday in a push for UN access to the affected area. Mr Al Assad has not yet given the inspectors permission to enter.

A week into a two-week mandate to visit three sites suspected of being hit in chemical weapons attacks that took place eight months ago, the UN team has not yet been to any of the agreed upon locations.

Syrian officials have indicated they will not broaden the inspectors' mandate but have come under growing pressure to do so from the international community, including - unusually - Moscow.

France and Britain have both publicly said they believe Mr Al Assad's forces carried out a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said yesterday that government forces had carried out a "chemical massacre" and that "the Bashar regime is responsible".

That followed comments from the British foreign secretary, William Hague, who said Syria carried out a "large scale" chemical attack.

The US has already said it believes forces loyal to Mr Al Assad have used chemical weapons, despite warnings there would be serious consequences for doing so.

Following Wednesdsay's attacks, Washington is now itself under pressure to take some kind of action, although analysts said US policy remained chaotic.

Leila Hilal, of the New America Foundation, said the US had been "reviewing options" for months and warned that, without moves to address underlying political problems in the region, military strikes would prove ineffective.

"Right now we don't have an effective political strategy in place, we don't have any strategy in place, and no consensus around what needs to happen," she said.

psands@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Taimur Khan in New York