Saturday, August 24, 2013
Syria, Iran: proof that rebels were responsible for gas attack; Obama considers military options
Syrian state television said troops found chemical agents in rebel tunnels in a Damascus suburb on Saturday and some soldiers were "suffocating", intensifying a dispute over blame for a reported nerve gas attack that killed hundreds this week.
The top U.N. disarmament official arrived in Damascus on Saturday to seek access for inspectors to the site of the attack and the United States was realigning naval forces in the region to give President Barack Obama the option for an armed strike on Syria.
Syrian opposition accounts that between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed by gas in munitions fired by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and video footage of victims' bodies, have heightened calls in the West for a robust, U.S.-led response after 2-1/2 years of international inaction on Syria's conflict.
In a clear attempt to strengthen the government's denials of responsibility for the suspected chemical assault, Syrian state television said soldiers came across chemical agents in rebel tunnels in the suburb of Jobar and some were overcome by fumes.
Iran, the chief regional ally of Damascus, said on Saturday there is "proof" Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in their conflict with the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"We are very concerned about information regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and we strongly condemn the use of such weapons," foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said, quoted by ISNA news agency.
"There is proof terrorist groups carried out this action," Araqchi said in reference to Wednesday's allegedly deadly attacks in the Damascus area, without elaborating.
Iran also warned against any Western military intervention in the 29-month conflict, after the United States suggested it was weighing up such a possibility.
Meanwhile US naval forces are moving closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers military options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. The president emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.
The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States. Officials say once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
Hagel said the U.S. is coordinating with the international community to determine "what exactly did happen" near Damascus earlier this week. According to reports, a chemical attack in a suburb of the capital killed at least 100 people. It would be the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.