WASHINGTON/BEIRUT, (Reuters) – The United States put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on notice yesterday that it believes he was responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians last week in what Secretary of State John Kerry called a “moral obscenity.”
“President (Barack) Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said in the most forceful U.S. reaction yet to the Aug. 21 attack.
Speaking after U.N. chemical weapons experts came under sniper fire on their way to investigate the scene of the attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the use of chemical weapons was undeniable and “there is very little doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime is culpable.”
Kerry said Obama was consulting with allies before he decides on how to respond.
“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry told reporters.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
Military chiefs from the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war, should they decide to punish Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons and blamed rebels for staging such attacks.
The Washington Post cited senior administration officials as saying Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war.
Such an attack would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles – or, possibly, long-range bombers – striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the newspaper reported.
It said such a move is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing the Syrian government’s culpability in the chemical attack, consultation with allies and the U.S. Congress and determination of a justification under international law.
U.S. warships armed with cruise missiles are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
Hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs in what appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
U.N. investigators crossed the front line from the centre of the capital, which remains under Assad’s control, to inspect the Mouadamiya suburb, one of at least four neighbourhoods hit by the poison gas before dawn last Wednesday.
The United Nations said one vehicle in its convoy was crippled by gunshots fired by “unidentified snipers.” The team continued on after turning back for a replacement car.
Syrian state television blamed rebel “terrorists” for the shooting. The opposition blamed pro-Assad militiamen.
“I am with the team now,” a doctor who uses the name Abu Karam told Reuters by telephone from Mouadamiya. “We are in the Rawda mosque and they are meeting with the wounded. Our medics and the inspectors are talking to the patients and taking samples from the victims now.”
Wassim al-Ahmad, an opposition activist, said members of the Free Syrian Army umbrella rebel organisation and the opposition’s Mouadamiya Local Council were accompanying the inspectors on their tour of the suburb.
“The inspectors are now examining victims being treated at a makeshift hospital in Mouadamiya and are taking blood samples from them,” Ahmad said.
Video filmed at the site showed inspectors in black and blue body armour and blue U.N. helmets walking through a street as curious onlookers came up to watch.
They shook hands with men who appeared to be rebels wearing camouflage vests, and were accompanied by doctors and residents. The group descended into the basement of a building where they were told injured survivors were being treated to protect them from more shelling. Another video showed an inspector interviewing a patient and taking notes.
Activists say at least 80 people were killed in Mouadamiya when the district was hit with poison gas. Hundreds of people also were killed in three other rebel-held districts – Irbin, Ain Tarma and Jobar.
An opposition activist said a large crowd of people gathered to air their grievances to the U.N. inspectors, who planned to take samples from corpses.
The inspectors later returned to their hotel and, within an hour, residents reported the shelling of Mouadamiya had resumed.
The decision to proceed with the mission despite coming under attack thwarted an apparent attempt to halt the inspectors’ work before it began.
“The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area,” the United Nations said in a statement.
The inspectors had been stuck in a downtown hotel since the attack, waiting for government permission to visit the scene a few miles away. They had arrived three days before the incident, with a mandate to investigate earlier reports of more limited chemical weapons use.
ASSAD TOO LATE
Kerry said Assad’s decision to finally allow access was too late to be credible. “That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide,” Kerry said, adding that Assad’s forces had also destroyed evidence by shelling the area.
“Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up,” Kerry said.
He said the U.N. inspectors could at most confirm that chemical weapons were used, not who used them, but that it was Assad’s government that has such weapons and the means of delivering them. He said Washington had additional information on the attack that it would make known soon.
Washington and its allies say they worry that the time that has elapsed, and continuous shelling by Assad’s forces of the affected areas, could make it impossible for the inspectors to collect evidence. The United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was confident the team could get the data it needs.
Speculation has been mounting that Western countries will order some kind of military response to an incident that took place a year after Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would require strong action.