- Team of chemical weapons experts left war-torn countryfor Lebanon
- U.S has ‘high confidence’ that Assad launched chemical weapons attack
- Britain left sidelined after David Cameron’s humiliating Commons defeat
- Sources say White House ‘now know the Brits cannot be counted on’
- France could now join U.S in missile strikes against Syria
- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lavished praise on ‘oldest ally’ France
- America says 1,429 people were killed in chemical attack
- U.S. warships now in place in the Mediterranean carrying cruise missiles
U.S missile strikes against Syria could start tomorrow after U.N. weapons inspectors left the war-torn country earlier than expected.
The team of chemical weapons inspectors left their Damascus hotel early today – possibly for neighboring Lebanon – fueling speculation of an imminent attack.
It came as the White House delivered an astonishing snub to Britain following Thursday’s shock Commons defeat, with sources saying David Cameron had ‘bungled’ securing British support for military action and that Britain ‘cannot be counted on’.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last night paved the way for war by saying the American intelligence community had ‘high confidence’ that the regime launched a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus last week.
Britain has been left sidelined in any U.S military action against Syria following the humiliating Commons defeat – placing strain on the ‘special relationship’ with the U.S.
Mr Kerry pointedly made no mention of Britain during his speech and instead lavished praise on its ‘oldest ally’ France – which looks likely to join the U.S in a missile strike.
He paid tribute to the French for standing ready to join the U.S in confronting the ‘thug and murderer’ President Bashar Assad. He also praised Australia and even Turkey for their support.
President Barack Obama yesterday said he is weighing ‘limited and narrow’ action as the administration put the chemical weapons death toll at 1,429 people – far more than previous estimates – including more than 400 children.
Downing Street insisted the U.S special relationship was still intact following a telephone call between the Prime Minister and Mr Obama.
However, White House sources told The Times that David Cameron had ‘bungled’ securing British support for military action.
Another source with knowledge of how the White House reacted to Thursday’s shock Commons defeat, said: ‘It came as a real shock to them. They now know the Brits, because of their political system, cannot be counted on.’
Speaking to Channel 4 News, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, expressed his frustration. He said: ‘I’m disappointed , because we have a very close working relationship with the U.S.
‘It is a difficult time for our Armed Forces – having prepared to go into this action – to then be stood down and have to watch while the U.S acts alone or perhaps acts with France.’
Halfway around the world, U.S. warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea. They carried cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
Seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama insisted there would be no ‘boots on the ground.’
Mr Cameron- who spoke to the U.S. President following Thursday’s defeat – acknowledged that ‘politics is difficult’ .
But he said he would not have to apologise to Mr Obama for being unable to commit UK military units to any international alliance.
Setting out the approach he would now take to Syria, the Prime Minister said: ‘I think it’s important we have a robust response to the use of chemical weapons and there are a series of things we will continue to do.
‘We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organisations we are members of – whether the EU, or Nato, or the G8 or the G20 – to condemn what’s happened in Syria.
‘It’s important we uphold the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons.
‘But one thing that was proposed, the potential – only after another vote – involvement of the British military in any action, that won’t be happening.
‘That won’t be happening because the British Parliament, reflecting the great scepticism of the British people about any involvement in the Middle East, and I understand that, that part of it won’t be going ahead.’
Following the Prime Minister’s conversation with the U.S. President, a Number 10 spokesman said: ‘The PM explained that he wanted to build a consensual approach in Britain for our response and that the Government had accepted the clear view of the House against British military action.
‘President Obama said he fully respected the PM’s approach and that he had not yet taken a decision on the US response.
‘The president stressed his appreciation of his strong friendship with the Prime Minister and of the strength, durability and depth of the special relationship between our two countries.
‘They agreed that their co-operation on international issues would continue in the future and both reiterated their determination to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict by bringing all sides together.’
After leaving Syria, the international contingent of weapons inspectors are heading to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.
Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents.
The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims had died from a poisonous gas attack.
U.S. INTELLIGENCE ON THE SOURCE OF SYRIAN CHEMICAL WEAPONS ATTACK
- U.S. intelligence community has ‘high confidence,’ short of actual confirmation, that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack on August 21
- Members of the Syrian regime were preparing chemical weapons in the three days prior to the August 21 attack and protected themselves using gas masks
- At least 1,429 Syrians were killed in the attacks, including 426 children
- The weapons were launched from government-controlled areas into opposition-held or contested territory
- The Syrian government has carried out smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks multiple times over the last year
- U.S. intelligence officials ‘intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence’
- On the afternoon of August 21, intelligence officials learned that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations
The Syrian government said administration claims were ‘flagrant lies’ akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that ‘under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians.’
Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic.
One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said: ‘I am not afraid from the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria for the sake of Israel.’
Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.
Mr Kerry said yesterday that the credibility and security of the U.S. and its allies are at stake.
‘Some cite the risk of doing things,’ he said. But we need to ask, “What is the risk of doing nothing?”’
The U.S. intelligence report said that about 3,600 patients ‘displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure’ were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack.
To that, Kerry added that ‘a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered.’ He added for emphasis: ‘We know this.’
An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them from attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens.
Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events elsewhere during the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.
Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a ‘red line’ that Assad should not cross.
And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.
With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political crosscurrents have been intense both domestically and overseas.
Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, have signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to launch hostilities.
Despite the urgings, there has been little or no discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the issue.
Lawmakers have been on a summer break for nearly a month, and are not due to return to the Capitol until Sept. 9.
Obama has not sought a vote of congressional approval for any military action. Neither Republican nor Democratic congressional leaders have challenged his authority to act or sought to have lawmakers called into session before he does.
Senior White House, State Department, Pentagon and intelligence officials met for an hour and half Friday with more than a dozen senators who serve on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. He described the discussion as ‘open and constructive.’
The White House will brief Republican senators in a conference call today at the request of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a spokesman for the senator, Don Stewart, said.
Obama’s efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up.
Hollande has endorsed punitive strikes, and told the newspaper Le Monde that the ‘chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished.’
American attempts to secure backing at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings to U.N. member states and the Security Council.
‘President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests,’ he said. ‘Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.’
He said the U.S. should also feel confident that it has the backing of a number of other nations, including Turkey, Australia, the Arab League and what he called America’s ‘oldest ally,’ France.
Half of Americans say they oppose taking military action against Syria and nearly 80 percent believe Obama should seek congressional approval before using any force, according to a new NBC poll.
The administration supplemented Kerry’s remarks Friday with the release of the intelligence report.
‘It’s findings are as clear as they are compelling,’ Kerry said.
The report concludes with ‘high confidence,’ short of actual confirmation, that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack.
‘Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,’ the report says.
‘We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence,’ the report continues. ‘On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.’
The findings also claim that Assad is the ‘ultimate decision maker’ for Syria’s chemical weapons program and that his regime has used the weapons on a smaller scale against citizens several times in the past year.
‘This assessment is based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin,’ the report says. ‘We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons.’ Sarin is a type of nerve gas.
The report further reveals evidence that the regime had been preparing chemical weapons in the three days prior to the attacks and protected themselves using gas masks.
‘Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin,’ the report says.
The report also cited evidence that the attacks were launched from regime-controlled areas into opposition territory or contested areas.
Several senior officials related before the release of the report that the intelligence was ‘not a slam dunk’ in terms of tying Assad’s regime to the use of chemical weapons.
The term ‘slam dunk’ is a reference to the then-CIA Director George Tenet’s assurance in 2002 that assessments showing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a ‘slam dunk.’
Kerry assured on Friday that the U.S. will not repeat the mistakes of the Iraq war.
‘We are more than mindful of the Iraq experience,’ Kerry said. ‘We will not repeat that moment.’
He later added: ‘Whatever decision [Obama] makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway.’
The administration briefed members of Congress on a conference call Thursday evening to explain its conclusion that Bashar Assad’s government was guilty of carrying out a suspected chemical attack on August 21.
Following the call, House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, sided with Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in urging the administration to engage with the full Congress on the matter.
She also said that the administration must provide ‘additional transparency into the decision-making process.’