Bloomberg: The United Nations will begin investigating allegations of chemical arms use in Syria “within hours,” after the U.S. concluded President Bashar al-Assad’s regime probably used the weaponry against civilians.


Bloomberg

By Roger Runningen & Silla Brush

The United Nations will begin investigating allegations of chemical arms use in Syria “within hours,” after the U.S. concluded President Bashar al-Assad’s regime probably used the weaponry against civilians.

“Any use of chemical weapons by anyone, under any circumstances, is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at a briefing in Seoul today. “We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a great crime against humanity.”

Ban called for “unfettered and unconditional access” and said both sides should accept a cease-fire during the probe.

Syria and the UN agreed yesterday to the inspection of the Ghouta area outside Damascus. The agreement five days after the purported attack is too late because constant shelling of the area could have corrupted or destroyed evidence, according to a senior U.S. administration official in an e-mailed statement.

Pressure is building on President Barack Obama to respond, with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling yesterday for a limited military response by the U.S. and its allies. The U.S., the U.K. and France are discussing options.

U.S. intelligence officials and international partners have concluded that chemicals were used, based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured in the Aug. 21 attacks, witness accounts and other facts gathered, according to the U.S. statement.

Accusations ‘Nonsense’

“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” according to the official’s statement. The statement was released on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

The accusations are “nonsense,” Assad said in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia. “First they make an accusation and only then search for evidence.’

Some opposition groups say 1,300 people were killed in the attack in the Damascus suburb.

‘‘It’s important that they examine the victims. If they’re all displaying similar signs and symptoms, I think you can say with pretty good certainty the weapons were used,” said Princeton University researcher Laura Kahn, the author of “Who’s in Charge? Leadership During Epidemics, Bioterror Attacks, and Other Public Health Crises,” in a telephone interview. “The harder question is who used them.”

‘Ambiguous’ Results

The passing of time since the attack will make it more difficult to identify what occurred and which chemical agents might have been used, according to Rolf Halden, a professor at Arizona State University.

“If undertaken too late -- days after alleged attack -- a chemical monitoring effort may be imperfect and prone to yield ambiguous or inconclusive results,” Halden, who is part of the university’s program on security and defense systems, said in an e-mail.

French President Francois Hollande conferred with Obama yesterday about the situation in Syria. The U.S. and U.K. are now examining “all the options” for dealing with Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said in a statement after he spoke by phone with Obama.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement that Iran and Hezbollah are playing an active role in Syria.

‘Tragic Mistakes’

In a statement, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich urged nations that are weighing military force to show discretion and avoid “tragic mistakes.” He also said Russia is satisfied with the “constructive approach” of the Syrian government.

Top U.S. intelligence and national security officials are still assessing the facts before Obama decides how to respond, according to the statement. The U.S. president said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a U.S. “red line.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. military is ready to act if Obama orders a strike on Syria. “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” he told reporters on Aug. 24 en route to Kuala Lumpur, at the beginning of a week-long visit to the region.

Preparations include the repositioning of personnel and assets including ships, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

Potential Options

Obama met with his national security team on Aug. 24 to discuss the reports. U.S. intelligence officials along with international partners are continuing to gather evidence about what happened, according to a White House statement issued after the meeting.

The president received “a detailed review of a range of potential options he had requested be prepared for the United States and the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons,” according to the White House statement.

The U.S. now has four destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, compared with three that have been there for months, according to a U.S. official familiar with the forces there. None of the ships -- the USS Gravely, the USS Barry, the USS Mahan and the USS Ramage -- has been assigned a mission, the official said.

The U.S. response should be conducted in a “surgical and proportional way,” Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.” The U.S. should also act in a way that allows opposition forces in Syria to take the lead, said Corker of Tennessee.

“We have to act rather quickly,” Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on the Fox program.

 

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