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Middle east

US, UK suspect Syria of using chemical weapons

© AFP file photo

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-04-26

British PM David Cameron on Friday said that growing evidence against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons was “extremely serious,” a day after the US government said it was likely the Assad regime had used them against insurgents.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday said that growing evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was "extremely serious," after the White House revealed on Thursday that US intelligence agencies suspect the Syrian regime of using such weapons on a small scale.

He agreed with US President Barack Obama that such use would represent a "red line" for the international community, but said the response would likely be political rather than military.

"This is extremely serious. And I think what President Obama said was absolutely right, that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more," Cameron told the BBC. "I've always been keen for us to do more."

He added: "The question is how do we step up the pressure.”

"In my view what we need to do -- and we're doing some of this already -- is shape that opposition, work with them, train them, mentor them, help them so we put the pressure on the regime and so we can bring this to an end."

In the US, the revelations sparked speculation as to President Barack Obama’s next move, with several members of Congress calling for further American involvement in the Syrian conflict.

"The White House says it has various degrees of certainty of the use of chemical weapons -- in this case, sarin gas in small quantities (…) but the White House is pretty much 100% certain that these chemical weapons would have originated from the Assad regime", said FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent Philip Crowther.

The US president has previously indicated that if Syria used chemical weapons it would lead to a strong American response, saying that such a move would cross a “red line”.

However, FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther reports that Obama administration officials are insisting that intelligence assessments alone would not be enough to trigger a military intervention.

“The White House says it has intelligence… but wants definitive corroborated evidence”, said Crowther.

The White House said the evaluation that Syria probably used chemical weapons was based in part on physiological samples, but a White House official declined to say what kind of evidence it had, such as soil samples or blood or hair from victims.

The scale of the sarin use appeared limited, with one US intelligence official noting no “mass casualties” from Syrian chemical weapons use have been detected.

US has resisted military intervention

The United States has so far resisted being dragged militarily into Syria’s conflict, providing only non-lethal aid to rebels trying to overthrow Assad, given concerns that weapons end up the hands of al Qaeda-linked opposition fighters.

A White House official told reporters in the event of definitive evidence “all options are on the table in terms of our response” and said the United States would consult with allies.

The Obama administration’s sudden disclosure caught many off-guard, coming just two days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other US officials appeared to play down an Israeli assessment of chemical weapons use.

France and Britain have also concluded evidence suggests chemical arms have been used in Syria’s conflict.

“The intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours,” Hagel said.

The White House said it wanted to provide a “prompt response” to an April 24 query from lawmakers about whether Syria had used chemical weapons. The lawmakers’ letter to Obama cited the assessments by Israel, France and Britain.

Greg Theilmann, a former weapons proliferation expert in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, said, “I’m just a little surprised the US rolls out an assessment in this way.” In the last 24 hours, “did hard evidence suddenly appear?” said Theilmann, now at the private Arms Control Association.

What will be the US response?

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the leading advocates of deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict, said the US intelligence assessment demanded a US response.

“The president of the United States said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game changer, that it would cross a red line,” he said.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced concerns that the public US acknowledgement of its intelligence assessment could embolden Assad, prompting him to calculate “he has nothing more to lose.”

“Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons. The world must come together to prevent this by unified action,” she said.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told Reuters that US aid to the rebels may backfire and lead to attacks on American soil like those of September 11, 2001.

“Once the fire of terrorism spreads in Syria it will go everywhere in the world,” he said in an interview in Damascus.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-04-25

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