WASHINGTON — The White House asserted Sunday that a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” makes the Syrian government responsible for a chemical weapons attack that President Barack Obama says demands a U.S. military response.
As part of a major push to win the backing of a divided Congress and skeptical American public, Obama’s top aide made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to press the case for “targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade” the capabilities of Syrian President Bashar Assad “to carry out these terrible attacks again.”
At the same time, chief of staff Denis McDonough acknowledged the risks that military action could drag the U.S. into the middle of a brutal civil war and endanger allies such as Israel with a retaliatory attack.
The U.S. is “planning for every contingency in that regard and we’ll be ready for that,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The U.S., citing intelligence reports, says sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
The Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels were to blame.
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria last week was undeniable and that the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable for a “moral obscenity” that had shocked the world’s conscience.
In some of the administration’s most strident language yet, Mr. Kerry accused the Syrian government of cynically seeking to cover up the use of the weapons, rejected its denial of responsibility for a “cowardly crime.”
Mr. Kerry’s remarks, in a prepared statement he read at the State Department, reinforced the administration’s toughening stance on the Syria conflict, which is now well into its third year, and he suggested that the White House, in consultation with America’s allies, was moving closer to a military response.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” Mr. Kerry said.
The Syrian government seized control Wednesday of the town of Qusair, state television and opposition activists said, a significant strategic advance for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as they are bolstered by Lebanese militants.
For over a fortnight the city has been the scene of a grinding battle as rebels, penned in on all sides, attempted to repel the advance of pro-government forces. But on Wednesday, Syrian state television said “heroic” armed forces had restored stability to the town.
Control of Qusair, just six miles over the Lebanese border, is an essential cog in the government effort to regain a grip on central Syria. Fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, adept in street warfare, have been backing Assad’s troops in battle.
As state television broadcast footage of a soldier hoisting a Syrian flag emblazoned with Assad’s face over a clock tower in the town centre, the opposition conceded defeat.
European Union foreign ministers are discussing British and French calls for an easing of sanctions against Syria so weapons can be supplied to the rebels.
France and the UK are expected to argue that the move would increase pressure on Damascus for a political solution.
However, several EU states are totally opposed to ending the arms embargo, which expires on 31 May.
EU officials have warned against jeopardising a current initiative to hold an international peace conference.
Syria’s foreign minister confirmed on Sunday that the government would “in principle” attend the conference which the US and Russia hope will take place in Geneva next month.
Walid Muallem said it would be “a good opportunity for a political solution” to the conflict, which the UN says has left more than 80,000 people dead.
In a conflict which worsens by the week, this is a week when critical decisions on the next steps in Syria must be made.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has added his voice to those urging Europe to ease restrictions on military support for the opposition. “Fine for him to say but what is Washington willing to do?” one European foreign minister opposed to lifting the ban told me.
On Monday, Mr Kerry meets his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Paris. Their talks are expected to focus on plans for the first conference to bring together representatives of the Syrian government and opposition.
The meetings in Brussels and Paris are linked.
One of the main concerns in many European capitals is the impact any lifting or easing of the EU arms embargo might have on the fragile effort to fashion a political transition.
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Members of the main opposition coalition are currently discussing whether to attend the conference, but spokesmen have said they would if President Bashar al-Assa
Friday marks World Press Freedom Day, first declared by the United Nations two decades ago as a day to nurture the freedom of journalists — or to remind the world of where it falls short. Rights groups pointed to several spots on the globe where reporters are persecuted or in peril.
Syria is the deadliest country in the world for journalists, Amnesty International said in a newly released report. At least 46 people have been slain while reporting on its civil conflict between March 2011 and late April 2013, most of them Syrian nationals, according to UNESCO.
Journalists have come under fire from both government forces and rebels, some of them deliberately targeted for their work. Government forces are believed to have abducted, tortured and killed reporters, according to testimony gathered by Amnesty. Opposition fighters have publicly threatened journalists deemed sympathetic to the Syrian government and celebrated when they were attacked. At least seven journalists are now missing in Syria, according to the Agence France-Presse.
The government clampdown on foreign and local journalists has spurred citizen reporters to take up cameras to document the carnage in their neighborhoods, exposing themselves to added risk. The barrage of violent attacks on journalists “may amount to war crimes,” the human rights group wrote.
Those and other attacks made 2012 the deadliest one for journalists worldwide since the International Press Institute started systematically tracking journalists’ deaths in 1997.
On top of the dozens of reporters killed in Syria, at least 16 reporters were slain last year in Somalia, according to the group. Many appear to have been killed in retaliation for their work.
The Islamist militant group the Shabab is believed to be behind some of the killings, the Los Angeles Times’ Robyn Dixon wrote last year, but warlords and powerful businessmen are also suspected.
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.
In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels — hungry for revenge against the Alawites — and the rest of the country.
Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad’s favorite strategy — honed over decades — of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.
Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival’s supporters by including them
A Russian official has said for the first time that the Syrian government may be defeated by opposition forces.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are “losing more and more control and territory”, deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Thursday.
Russia was also making plans for a possible evacuation of thousands of its citizens in Syria, Mr Bogdanov said.
Russia has been one of the staunchest international allies of Mr Assad’s government.
“Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the victory of the Syrian opposition,” Mr Bogdanov said.
Russia, along with China, has used its veto at the UN Security Council to block resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s use of violence.
President Obama has warned the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war would “cross a red line.” Two questions come to mind: What will Obama (and other world leaders) do if the line is crossed? And given that Syrian president Bashar Assad has already killed more than 40,000 of his own people through more conventional methods, what’s the big deal about chemicals? Why should they trigger alarms that his heinous acts to date have not?
NBC News reported this week that Syrian military officers have loaded the precursor agents for sarin, a particularly lethal nerve gas, into bombs that could be dropped from dozens of combat aircraft. Syria has stockpiled roughly 500 tons of the stuff; anyone exposed to a mere one-tenth of a gram would likely die. In short, if Assad wanted, he could turn whole cities into wastelands.
That is one reason why chemical weapons, especially these chemical weapons, are viewed as something qualitatively different. It’s why they are designated “weapons of mass destruction” (even if they’re less destructive than their biological or nuclear cousins) and why 188 nations signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, outlawing their use, production, or stockpiling. (Syria is one of just six nations not to sign the treaty, the others being Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan.)
So a bright red line separates chemical weapons from conventional munitions for moral, humanitarian, and legal reasons. Not just Obama but the leaders of the other signatory nations have an obligation to respond in some very serious fashion if Assad crosses the line—to send the clear message, to everyone, that the use of these weapons is completely unacceptable.
Fierce fighting on the battlefield and setbacks on the diplomatic front increased pressure on the embattled Syrian government on Monday as fresh signs emerged of a worsening battle for control of the capital.
A senior Turkish official said that Russia had agreed on Monday to a new diplomatic approach that would seek ways to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, a possible weakening in Russia’s steadfast support for the government. Fighting raged around Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its airport, disrupting commercial flights for a fourth straight day.
A prominent Foreign Ministry spokesman was said to have left the country amid reports of his defection, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued warnings that any use of chemical weapons by a desperate government would be met with a strong international response. A Western diplomat confirmed that there were grave concerns in United States intelligence circles that Syrian leaders could resort to the use of the weapons as their position deteriorates.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, repeating earlier statements, told state television that the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”