THE United States has evidence that the chemical nerve agent sarin was used in a deadly attack in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday, as he insisted the “case is building” for a military attack.
Mr Kerry said samples from hair and blood gathered after the attack in Damascus had “tested positive for signatures of sarin”.
Claiming that only the Syrian regime was capable of using such weapons, Mr Kerry compared president Bashar al-Assad to Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein for deploying nerve gas.
The US Secretary of State’s assertion came a day after president Barack Obama stepped back from his threat to launch a military strike against Syria.
United Nations experts have been in Syria gathering evidence to determine whether chemical weapons attacks have taken place on various occasions.
The UN yesterday refused to set out a timeline for analysing the results following Mr Kerry’s claims that sarin had been used by the Syrian regime.
Mr Kerry said sarin nerve gas was deployed in the deadliest attack, in east Damascus on 21 August, when the US says more than 1,400 people were killed.
However, despite the growing evidence produced by the US, senior UK Cabinet ministers yesterday insisted the government would not make a renewed attempt to persuade MPs to support military action against Syria, after Westminster rejected the move last week. Mr Obama has vowed punitive action for the chemical weapons attack, but wants Congress to vote on it first.
Mr Kerry said he was confident Congress would give its approval for the US to launch strikes against Syria, after it reconvenes on 9 September.
Syria blames the rebels for the attack, while Mr Assad’s regime says it is ready for any strike.
Yesterday, Mr Kerry said: “In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus… hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of Sarin.
“So this case is building and this case will build.”
He said the use of chemical weapons put Mr Assad in the same category as the world’s most bloody dictators.
“Bashar Assad now joins the list of Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war.
“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”
Mr Kerry made the disclosure in a series of television interviews a day after Mr Obama delayed imminent military action in Syria to seek approval first from the US Congress – a decision that puts any strike on hold for at least nine days.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has asked the head of the organisation’s chemical weapons inspection team to expedite the analysis of tests from samples collected from Syria.
UN spokesman Martin Nes-irky said Mr Ban spoke with the head of the team, Ake Sellstrom, earlier yesterday and asked him to accelerate the process. He said two Syrian officials were observing the process, to safeguard the samples’ chain of custody.
The team collected samples from sites of the alleged chemical weapons attack. They will be sent tomorrow to laboratories around Europe to check for traces of poison gas.
Mr Nesirky declined to say when the results might be in, adding: “We are not giving a timeline.”
The Syrian government has been fighting rebel forces since March 2011, with more than 100,000 people estimated to have died in the conflict, and at least 1.7 million thought to have become refugees.
Chancellor George Osborne insisted yesterday that “parliament has spoken” and suggested that even if the facts changed, Britain would not deploy military force.
“I think parliament has spoken,” he said, adding: “I think the Labour Party will always play this opportunistically. The Conservative MPs, and there were Liberal Democrats, who couldn’t support us, they have a deep scepticism about military involvement and I don’t think another UN report, or whatever, would make the difference.
“I wanted us to be part of a potential military response. That is not going to be open to us now, because the House of Commons has spoken.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he could see no “immediate possibility” of circumstances changing enough to secure support from parliament.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we can go back to parliament every week with the same question, having received No for an answer,” he said.
“I’m not sure the extra evidence the United States presented would have made a difference to those doubting the evidence in the House of Commons.
“The Labour leadership would have to play a less opportunistic role and be prepared to take Yes for an answer in terms of the motions that we present.”
The Foreign Secretary also dismissed a suggestion that he had offered his resignation to Mr Cameron following the Commons defeat. He said: “No. The Prime Minister was very clear that we have to all get on with this.”
Mr Hague insisted relations between the US and the UK remained strong and said Britain would provide diplomatic and political support.
He said: “[The Americans] have been very good about the result of our vote and understand we respect democratic procedures in our country.
“We are not going to get involved in their congressional debate. But we do believe this threat has to be confronted and if it is not confronted now, the confrontation in the end will only be bigger.”
Mr Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorisation for a military strike on Syria has sparked calls for the French parliament to be granted the same privilege.
President François Hollande has backed Mr Obama’s call to punish Syria. France’s parliament is due to debate the issue on Wednesday.
Syrians claim vote move is ‘the start of a US retreat’
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before going ahead with a military strike on Syria is the start of a US “retreat”, Syrian state media said yesterday.
“Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication, the beginning of the historic American retreat,” said the front-page editorial in Syria’s official al-Thawra newspaper.
Mr Obama said on Saturday he would seek Congress’s consent before taking military action against Damascus for its apparent use of chemical weapons, a move that is likely to delay any attack for at least ten days.
“A decision to wage war on Syria is a criminal decision and an incorrect decision. We are confident that we will be victorious,” Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters outside a hotel in Damascus.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said yesterday his country was capable of confronting any external aggression and that threats of a US strike would not discourage it from a fight against what he described as “terrorism”.
In his first comments since Mr Obama’s speech, Mr Assad said: “Syria is capable of confronting any external aggression.
“The American threats of launching an attack against Syria will not discourage Syria away from its principles or its fight against terrorism supported by some regional and western countries, first and foremost the United States of America,” state television quoted Mr Assad as saying during a meeting with Iranian officials.
SNP accuses UK government of hypocrisy
THE SNP has condemned the “utter hypocrisy” of the UK government after it was revealed that it allowed the sale to Syria of chemicals that can be used to make nerve gas.
It follows reports that export licences were granted to British firms to export potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride –which can be used to make the chemical weapon sarin – several months after the civil war in Syria began.
The licences were revoked only when the EU imposed sanctions on the Assad regime last summer.
Sarin is thought to be the nerve gas used in the chemical attacks seen last week, in which more than 1,400 people died.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been blamed for the attack, leading to calls for an armed response from the West. SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson has said he will be seeking answers from the UK government at the earliest opportunity.
Mr Robertson said: “This is utter hypocrisy from the UK government – deploring chemical weapons in public while approving the sale of items needed to make them.
“I will be raising this at Westminster as soon as possible to find out what examination the UK government made of where these chemicals were going, and what they were to be used for.
“Approving the sale of chemicals which can be converted into lethal weapons during a civil war is a very serious issue.”
Last year it emerged that the Ministry of Defence has trained members of the Syrian army in at least eight years since 2001, with no indication as to what exactly that training involved.
Mr Robertson added: “We need to know who these chemicals were sold to, why they were sold, and whether the UK government was aware the chemicals could potentially be used for weapons.
“The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria makes a full explanation around these shady deals even more important.”
Israel is prepared to stand alone, says Netanyahu
ISRAELI prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu played up his country’s ability to take on its enemies alone yesterday, after Washington delayed attacking Syria in a move that prompted some Israelis to question their main ally’s resolve on Iran.
“Israel is serene and self-confident,” Mr Netanyahu said in public remarks to his cabinet before its weekly meeting.
“Israel’s citizens know we are prepared for any possible scenario. And Israel’s citizens should also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our power and not to test our might.”
Mr Netanyahu did not mention Iran or Syria by name, but in previous statements he has linked the two cases.
Israelis see the Syria showdown as a test of the United States’ ability to make good on a pledge to deny Iran the means to make a nuclear bomb through military force if diplomatic alternatives fail.
Army Radio, a major Israeli broadcaster, quoted an unnamed government official in far less elliptical terms: “If [US president Barack] Obama is hesitating on the matter of Syria, then clearly on the question of attacking Iran – a move that is expected to be far more complicated – Obama will hesitate much more, and thus the chances Israel will have to act alone have increased.”
Commentators in Israel are divided on whether Syria has much to do with the Iranian situation. Naftali Bennett, an ultranationalist partner in Israel’s coalition, said on Facebook, “More than 1,000 civilians, many of them babies and children, were murdered by a dark regime using poison gas. And the world hesitates. This is a major lesson. At the moment of truth, we will depend only on ourselves.”
But Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defence minister, spoke in favour of Mr Obama’s deliberations, arguing that Bashar al-Assad’s oponents include al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.