White House on Syria: “There Must Be a Response”
DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) — Syria will be called to account for its suspected use of chemical weapons, the White House warned Tuesday amid increasing signs of a coming Western military strike against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“There must be a response,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “We cannot allow this kind of violation of an international norm, with all the attendant grave consequences, to go unanswered.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron called lawmakers back from their summer vacations to consider a response, and French President Francois Hollande said his administration was “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people.”
“Everything leads us to believe that the regime carried out this abhorrent act,” he said in a speech Tuesday.
British officials said their military was preparing contingency plans. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday that U.S. forces are “ready to go” if ordered to strike by President Barack Obama.
“The options are there, the United States Department of Defense is ready to carry out those options,” Hagel told the BBC.
“We are ready to go, like that,” he said, referring to the military’s capability to carry out a strike immediately.
Syria’s foreign minister struck a defiant tone in response, denying his nation is hindering United Nations weapons inspectors who are on the ground in Syria to look into the reported attacks. He warned Western leaders against striking Syria.
“Syria is not easy to swallow,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday at a news conference. “We have the materials to defend ourselves. We will surprise others.”
Western leaders were reacting to a growing consensus that the Syrian regime was responsible for an August 21 chemical attack that rebel officials say killed more than 1,300 people — including many children. Rebel and Western leaders have suspected the Syrian government in several previous lesser chemical attacks.
Syrian officials blame rebels for the deaths.
Security Council review urged
The calls for a military response were not without opposition. Former British Foreign Secretary David Owen urged world leaders to take their case to the United Nations Security Council before unleashing missiles or warplanes on Syrian targets. That seemed a remote possibility, given Syrian ally Russia’s permanent seat on the council.
Others expressed concern that intervention in Syria could provoke broader conflict in the Middle East or ensnare Western powers in another bloody conflict after years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cameron said he understands those concerns, but that the international taboo against chemical weapons is too important for their use to be tolerated.
“This is not about wars in the Middle East, this is not even about the Syrian conflict,” he said. “It’s about use of chemical weapons and making sure as a world we deter their use, and we deter the appalling scenes we’ve all seen on our television screens.”
“Any decision would have to be proportionate, would have to be legal, would have to be specifically about deterring the use of chemical weapons,” he said.
An intelligence report detailing evidence of the alleged attack could be released as early as Tuesday, a U.S. official told CNN. The report will include forensic evidence and intercepted communications among Syrian military commanders, the official said.
‘A moral obscenity’
While stopping short of directly accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad&’s government of a massacre, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday called chemical weapons use a “moral obscenity” and said Syrian actions are “not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”
“We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said that Syria was “systemically destroying evidence” of last week’s attack by continuing to shell the area. And he said sniper fire Monday that damaged a vehicle being driven by a team of U.N. weapons inspectors “only further weakens the regime’s credibility.”
Moallem rejected the accusations.
“They said the Syrian forces are the ones who used this weapon,” he said. “And I categorically denied this matter. I said there is no country in the world that uses weapons of mass destruction against its people. If anybody who has got any evidence, who can accuse our forces that they used this kind of weapon, I dare them to bring it out to the public.”
He said rebel forces were to blame for security concerns near the suspected chemical sites and argued Western leaders were using claims of chemical weapons use as an excuse to go after the al-Assad regime.
“We all hear the drums of war,” he said. “They want to attack Syria. I believe to use chemical weapons as a pretext is not right.”
Russia objects, again
Syrian ally Russia also cast doubt on the accusations.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the United States of trying to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention” in Syria.
In a statement, the ministry complained that Washington was attempting to bypass the U.N. Security Council to take action on the reported chemical attack.
Russia is an ally of Syria’s president and has a permanent seat on the council. It is capable of blocking measures against his government that are proposed to the U.N. body.
Moscow also bemoaned the postponement by the United States of a meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday in The Hague, where top diplomats from both countries had planned to discuss the war in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that there is no proof yet that the Syrian government was involved in last week’s reported chemical attack. His office has compared the Western allegations against Syria to the claims that Iraq was hoarding weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003 — claims that fell apart once American troops began searching for them.
U.N. inspections delayed
U.N. inspectors had been expected Tuesday to head to Ghouta to look for evidence of chemical weapons use. But Moallem said that Tuesday's planned trip to the outskirts of Damascus had been delayed until Wednesday because of security concerns.
He blamed rebel forces for failing to guarantee the safety of the U.N. team, and denied that the government was delaying the inspections amid continued shelling of the site. Video posted to YouTube on Tuesday purported to show the area being shelled.
CNN could not verify the authenticity of the video.
The U.N. inspection team said in a statement that it had decided to postpone its work by one day “in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.”
On Monday, inspectors visited the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham, despite a close call with snipers that damaged one of their vehicles. There also was an explosion near the inspection site, the United Nations said. There were no reports of injuries.
The visit came days after U.N. inspectors requested access to the site. Inspectors feared possible evidence of chemical weapons had already dissipated. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the team visited hospitals; interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors; and collected samples.
Videos posted on social media by Syrian activists showed inspectors who appeared to be examining the area accompanied by doctors.
Speaking from Seoul, South Korea, Ban said he has directed the group to register a “strong complaint” to government and opposition forces to make sure the team's safety is guaranteed after Monday's incident.
The inspectors are trying to get to the bottom of conflicting accounts by Syria’s government and rebel leaders of a chemical attack last week.
Opposition members say rockets with chemical payloads were among the ordnance that government troops unleashed at the rebel stronghold of Ghouta early on August 21. More than 1,300 people died, most of them by gas, according to opposition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.
The opposition backed up the allegations with gruesome video of rows of dead bodies, including women and children. They had no visible wounds, and some appeared to be bloated.
But according to Syrian state-run television’s depiction of events, government forces came into contact with a gas attack Saturday in Jobar, on the edge of Damascus. Several of the soldiers were “suffocating” from exposure to gases as they entered the city, according to state TV.
“It is believed that the terrorists have used chemical weapons in the area,” Syrian TV reported, citing an anonymous source. The government uses the term “terrorists” to describe rebel forces.
Broadcast video showed a room containing gas masks, gas canisters and other paraphernalia that could be used in a gas attack. The army said it uncovered the cache in a storage facility in the area.
CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of video shown by the government or rebels.
The discussion of military response in Washington, London and elsewhere came as former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called the West to military action Tuesday.
“Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action; shaping events or reacting to them,” he wrote in an essay published in The Times of London.
“People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda.”
The United States is probably considering a campaign targeting the command and control capabilities of the Syrian military rather than targeting the chemical weapons stockpiles, said retired U.S. Army Gen. James “Spider” Marks.
Attacking the weapons would pose too great a risk of spreading chemical contaminants and injuring innocent civilians, he said.
“We would go after the command and control, intelligence collection capabilities, and essentially the air defense and all of Assad’s war-making capability that he’s using right now,” Marks said.
He said that while the campaign probably would begin with air power, it might have to end with someone’s troops on the ground.
“Inevitably, you have to be prepared to do that,” he said. “If you can’t get the al Qaeda affiliates separated from Assad’s regime and the killing continues, the worst outcome would be al Qaeda with chemical weapons and Assad gone from the picture and no governing body in place in Damascus. I mean, that’s a horrible outcome.”
Middle East analyst Richard Haass told CNN’s “The Lead” on Monday that while military action is needed to underscore the international taboo against chemical weapons, it must be carefully calibrated to avoid an enduring conflict.
“No one, Syria or anybody else, now and forevermore, should be able to use such weapons, much less biological or nuclear weapons, with impunity,” he said. But he said Washington should limit its intervention in the conflict, “so we don’t get enmeshed in what I think could become a quagmire.”