WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS – Pressure mounted Sunday on Damascus to allow a U.N. probe into claims of chemical weapons attacks, as Washington and London said there were “increasing signs” that the Syrian regime was to blame.
A Downing Street statement said the U.S. and British leaders “are both gravely concerned by . . . increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people.”
“The fact that President Assad has failed to cooperate with the U.N. suggests that the regime has something to hide,” it added, noting that “significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community.”
The Syrian government and its foes, meanwhile, accused each other of using chemical weapons, as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 355 people had died of “neurotoxic” symptoms stemming from Wednesday’s incident, with an estimated 3,600 people being treated in three hospitals on the day of the alleged attack. But MSF stressed it had no scientific proof of the cause of the symptoms nor could it confirm who carried out the attack.
For its part, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 300 people had died from the effects of gas, including 82 women and 54 children. If confirmed, the attack would be the deadliest use of chemical agents since Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish rebel areas in northern Iraq in the 1980s.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s talks with security advisers came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon had presented options to the president and strongly suggested U.S. forces were being moved ahead of any possible decision on taking action in Syria.
So far, despite the reports of Wednesday’s chemical attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus, Obama has continued to voice caution, warning that a hasty military response could have unforeseen consequences, including embroiling the United States in another prolonged Middle East conflict. “The president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” a White House official said.
“We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria.”
The Syrian regime has denied using chemical weapons, and state television said Saturday that soldiers entering a rebel-held area had “suffocated” on poison gases deployed by “terrorists.”
Obama warned a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was a “red line” that could bring about a more strident Western intervention in the 2-year-old civil war. However, The New York Times cited a senior U.S. administration official as saying Washington was looking at NATO’s air war over Kosovo in 1999 as a blueprint for strikes on Syria without a U.N. mandate.