Seven million Syrians, one third of the population, have either fled to neighbouring countries or are refugees in their own land, according to the United Nations.
The UN figures revealing the true extent of the humanitarian crisis afflicting the war-torn country came as France released its intelligence findings on the alleged chemical weapon attack on civilians in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August.
The nine-page document, drawn up by France’s military and foreign intelligence services, said forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad had carried out a “massive and co-ordinated” chemical assault.
The dossier, which listed five points suggesting Mr Assad’s fighters had been behind the assault, is central to president Francois Hollande’s calls for him to be punished with military action for the reported chemical attack on areas controlled by Syrian rebels.
Satellite imagery showed strikes coming from government-controlled areas to the east and west of the Syrian capital and targeting rebel-held zones – areas that have since been bombed to wipe out evidence, a French government source said. “Unlike previous attacks that used small amounts of chemicals and were aimed at terrorising people, this attack was tactical and aimed at regaining territory,” the source said.
Some 47 amateur video clips reportedly filmed on the morning of the attack and showing the impact on civilians have been authenticated by French military doctors, according to the intelligence.
The US has already said it has proof the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapon attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Other French evidence gave details of suspected chemical attacks in the towns of Saraqib and Jobar in April, which now appeared to have killed about 280 people.
France has also been testing for sarin in samples of suspected chemical weapons smuggled out in April from Jobar, near Damascus, by reporters from the French newspaper Le Monde.
In the US, Barack Obama’s administration is lobbying to secure domestic support for an attack. He held talks yesterday with Republican senator John McCain at the White House, hoping the foreign policy hawk will help sell the idea of US military intervention.
On Capitol Hill, senior administration officials have been meeting legislators in private to explain why the US should feel compelled to act against Mr Assad.
But in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, the Syrian president warned military strikes against his country would risk triggering a regional war.
He said the Middle East was a “powder keg” and no-one could say what would transpire if the West took military action against Syria.
He warned: “The whole world will lose control of the situation. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists.”
Speaking of the alleged chemical weapon attacks, Mr Assad said: “Those who make accusations must show evidence. We have challenged the United States and France to come up with a single piece of proof. Obama and Hollande have been incapable of doing so.”
He went on: “Anybody who contributes to the financial and military reinforcement of terrorists is the enemy of the Syrian people. If the policies of the French state are hostile to the Syrian people, the state will be their enemy. There will be repercussions, negative ones obviously, on French interests.”
Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov again dismissed the evidence of alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime as “absolutely unconvincing”. He said the evidence presented by the US to Moscow showed “there was nothing specific there, no geographic co-ordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals”.
Whatever the decision by the US and France on military strikes, Syria’s humanitarian gets worse by the day – and the UN lacks the funding to look after so many people, Tarik Kurdi, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria, said yesterday.
He told reporters the need for aid was far greater than what the international community had provided. “Whatever efforts we have exerted and whatever the UN has provided in humanitarian aid, it is only a drop in the sea of humanitarian needs in Syria,” he said. He described the funding gap as “very, very wide”.
He said the UN estimated that five million Syrians had been displaced inside the country. A further two million have fled to neighbouring countries, according to previous UN figures.
Meanwhile, Tehran, a key backer of the Assad government, has been forced to deny that former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had accused the Syrian government of using poison gas, saying the remarks had been “distorted”.
However, an audio recording of the remarks was being widely circulated among Middle Eastern media outlets yesterday.
Normal trade with Syria must continue, Hammond insists
Normal trade with Syria must be allowed to continue, the Defence Secretary said yesterday as he defended the sale of chemicals to president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Philip Hammond told MPs that chemicals sold to the Syrian regime before their licences were revoked in June 2012 were intended for use in “metal finishing activities”.
He said: “It is the case that export licences were granted for some industrial chemicals, that could have been used in a process that might have been involved in the production of poisonous gases. Those export licences were revoked and no such chemicals were exported.”
During defence questions, Mr Hammond suggested the UK had to deal with competing priorities, ensuring material that could be “misused” did not end up in dangerous hands, while keeping Britain open for business. “The problem we all face is that there are a significant number of industrial chemicals, which have perfectly legitimate industrial uses – in this case, I believe, in metal finishing,” Mr Hammond said.
“We have to maintain the right balance between ensuring we are not providing materials that can be misused and allowing normal trade to be conducted.”
MPs had called for answers over the chemicals trade deal with Syria signed months after the bloodshed started. The Department for Business issued licences for the export of sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride to Syria in January last year before revoking them months later.The chemicals can be used to make nerve gas such as sarin, as well as having industrial uses, say experts.
The SNP’s Angus Robertson said: “This is utter hypocrisy from the UK government – deploring chemical weapons in public whilst approving the sale of items needed to make them.”