MOSCOW Syria on Monday quickly welcomed a call from Russia, its close ally, to place Syrian chemical arsenals under international control, then destroy them to avert a U.S. strike, but did not offer a time frame or any other specifics.
The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared to mark the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to avoid the U.S. military attack.
But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” al-Moallem said during a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Speaking to reporters in London at the tail end of a foreign trip which saw him take the U.S. government’s case to both friends and foes at the G-20 summit in Russia and in Europe, Kerry reiterated the Obama administration’s absolute certainty in its own evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs.
“We know that his regime gave orders to prepare for a chemical attack,” said Kerry. “We know by tracing it physically where the rockets came from and where they landed,” he added, saying still-secret intelligence showed rockets being fired from regime-controlled areas into the opposition held eastern Ghouta suburbs.
“The evidence is powerful, and the question for all of us is what are we going to do about it,” said Kerry.
The White House has shared its evidence with U.S. lawmakers, but it’s unclear who else has seen the satellite imagery and heard the intercepted phone calls which make President Obama and his cabinet so certain Assad ordered the attack.
The Syrian government is repelling attempts by the United Nations to widen an investigation into what is believed to be the use of chemical weapons in an Aleppo province village last month.
Both sides in the two-year conflict are blaming the other for the alleged incident in Khan al-Assal.
Damascus appeared ready to allow a U.N. inspection team currently in Cyprus to get a first-hand look in the village until Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requested additional teams to visit other parts of Syria to investigate additional claims.
Updated 10:00 p.m.
The Syrian military used an exotic chemical weapon on rebels during an attack in the city of Homs, some U.S. diplomats now believe.
That conclusion — first reported by Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin and laid out in a secret cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul — contradicts preliminary estimates made by American officials in the hours after the December 23 strike. But after interviews with Syrian activists, doctors, and defectors, American diplomats in Turkey have apparently rendered a different verdict. It’s important to note, however, that this was the conclusion of a single consulate within the State Department, and there is still wide disagreement within the U.S. government over whether the Homs attack should be characterized as a chemical weapons incident.
“We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” an unnamed U.S. official tells Rogin.
Agent 15 is similar to 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate or BZ, a powerful hallucinogen that the American military tested out on its own soldiers during the Cold War. Its emergence on the Syrian battlefield would be nothing short of bizarre. While Syria is well-known to have a massive supply of chemical weapons, international observers haven’t ordinarily included BZ on that list.