Syrian regime’s offer too late, says the US

Syria chemical attack    A US military response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria appeared more likely yesterday after Washington dismissed the Syrian government’s offer to allow UN inspection of the sites as “too late to be credible”.

A senior official of the US administration said there was little doubt the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians in suburbs of Damascus last week and that President Barack Obama was weighing how to respond.

A year ago, Obama had said the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s war would be a “red line” for the US. However, Obama has now been reluctant to intervene in Syria and US officials stressed that he had yet to make a decision on how to respond.

US lawmakers from both political parties urged a limited American military response, such as cruise missile strikes, but a senior Democrat, Senator Jack Reed, cautioned that any move by Washington should not be unilateral.

Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he had discussed the issue with the administration in the past week and believed Obama would ask Congress for authorisation for intervention once Congress returns from its recess on September 9.

“I think we will respond in a surgical way and I hope the president as soon as we get back to Washington will ask for authorisation from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way,” he said.

Americans strongly oppose US intervention in Syria’s civil war and believe Washington should stay out of the conflict even if the reports are true that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, a Reuters/Ipsos poll says.

Russia yesterday warned the US against repeating the “mistakes of the past” in Syria, saying any US action should not bypass the UN. Iran, another key ally of Assad, said Washington should not cross a “red line” by attacking Syria, while Syria’s information minister said any US military action would “create a ball of fire”.

The Syrian foreign ministry said it had agreed to allow UN inspectors access to sites in suburbs of Damascus where the alleged chemical attacks are said to have occurred last week.

The senior US official made clear the Syrian government’s move was inadequate, saying that if the Syrians had nothing to hide they would have let the inspectors in five days ago after the attack was first reported.

“At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official said.

“Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts gathered by open sources, the US intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday said that any evidence of a chemical attack by the Syrian regime may have already been destroyed.  “The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment,” he said during a press conference after Damascus gave its green light to a mission by UN inspectors. “Other evidence could have degraded over the last few days and other evidence could have been tampered with,” he said. (Reuters)

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