Syria: John Kerry arrives for UK talks on action

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up a shooting position in Ogiwl, Aleppo. Picture: Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up a shooting position in Ogiwl, Aleppo. Picture: Reuters
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AMERICAN secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Britain last night to drum up support for military action in Syria.

Before arriving in the UK, Mr Kerry said many nations agreed with the United States that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people had crossed a “global red line”.

The US said it did not rule out returning to the United Nations Security Council to secure a Syria resolution once weapons inspectors complete a report on the chemical attack, but officials indicated Arab countries were seeking a tough response.

President Assad yesterday again denied unleashing the suspected sarin gas attack on 21 August which killed 1,429 people.

Speaking in Paris after meeting with Arab League nations yesterday, Mr Kerry said “a number” of them had backed the call by a number of G20 countries for a “strong international response”.

The UK was one of 11 of the world’s major economic players which released a joint statement blaming the Assad regime for the chemical attack after last week’s summit in St Petersburg. It has subsequently been endorsed by Germany.

However, host Russia – one of Mr Assad’s staunchest allies – insisted the attack was carried out by Syrian opposition forces and was among countries that did not sign up as the gathering highlighted stark divisions.

Mr Kerry said: “We discussed the possible and necessary measures that the international community can take to deter Assad from crossing that line again.

“A number of countries immediately signed on to the G20 agreement that was reached by now 12 countries and they will make their own announcements in the next 24 hours about that.”

He said: “What the United States is seeking – not alone but with others, an increasing number – is to enforce the standard with respect to the use of chemical weapons.

“We are not seeking to become engaged in or party to or take over Syria’s civil war.

“All of us agreed, with not one dissenter, that Assad’s deplorable use of chemical weapons, which we know killed hundreds of innocent people, including at least 426 children, on this occasion, this one occasion, crosses an international, a global red line.”

French president François Hollande, increasingly under pressure at home and among European partners to seek a UN mandate before any military intervention in Syria, on Saturday suggested he could seek a resolution at the security council despite earlier Russian and Chinese vetoes. French officials say a draft resolution presented jointly by Britain and France at the end of August was not read by Russia and China.

UN inspectors are likely to hand-in their report later this week roughly at the same time as the US Congress votes on whether to allow limited military strikes on Syria.

“On president Hollande’s comments with respect to the UN, the president [Barack Obama], and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” Mr Kerry said.

“No decision has been made by the president.”

After the news conference, a US official said Washington was not seeking a vote at the moment.

“We have always supported working through the UN but have been clear there is not a path forward there and we are not considering proposing another vote,” said the official.

As Mr Assad warned of retaliation for any US-led strike, regional ally Iran’s new foreign minister declared that any use of force without UN authorisation would be illegal.

During a visit to Iraq, Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “I do not know why those who say all options are on the table do not understand the fact that civilised countries 65 years ago... rejected in the charter of the United Nations [the] resort to force as an illegal practice.”

The White House has mounted a push to win support from Congress and a sceptical American public for a military strike.

The Senate is expected to hold the first showdown vote on Wednesday over a resolution that would authorise the “limited and specified use” of US armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring ground troops from combat.

In an interview yesterday, Mr Assad said there is no conclusive evidence about who is to blame for the chemical attacks and again asserted the rebels were responsible. He also warned that if there was a military strike by the US, there would be retaliation by those aligned with Syria.

The full interview will air on the CBS network today.

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RAF send fighters from Cyprus to shadow ‘suspicious’ Syrian flight

Two Royal Air Force jets were scrambled from their base in Cyprus to investigate Syrian planes that had crossed into international airspace, it has emerged.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that unidentified planes legally crossed into Cypriot skies from the east of the country last Monday. It is understood the behaviour of the aircraft raised suspicions at RAF Akrotiri, less than 200 miles from Syria, prompting the rapid response. The aircraft retreated before any action was taken.

Two Turkish F-16s are also believed to have been launched in support of the investigation from their base in Incirlik, Turkey.

A spokesman for the MoD said: “The MoD can confirm that Typhoon air defence aircraft operated from RAF Akrotiri on Monday to investigate unidentified aircraft to the east of Cyprus; the aircraft were flying legally in international airspace and no intercept was required.”

RAF Akrotiri is used by the RAF as a base for overseas operations in the Middle East and also for training.

Push by al-Qaeda faction takes over Christian town

Rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked fighters, gained control of a Christian village north-east of the capital Damascus, Syrian activists said yesterday.

The rebel advance into the area was spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, exacerbating fears among Syrians and religious minorities about the role played by Islamic extremists within the rebel ranks.

The spokesman for the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said Jabhat al-Nusra backed by another group, the Qalamon Liberation Front, moved into the village after heavy clashes with the army on Saturday. He said about 1,500 rebels were inside the town.

“The army pulled back to the outskirts of the village and both [rebel groups] are in total control of Maaloula now,” Mr Abdul-Rahman said. He said pro-government fighters remained inside the village, in hiding.

It was impossible to independently verify the reports from Maaloula, a scenic mountain community known for being one of the few places in the world where residents still speak the ancient Middle Eastern language of Aramaic.

MP wants investigation into export of sarin component

A watchdog should examine why a chemical that can be used to make the deadly sarin nerve agent was sold by British firms to Syria with government permission, a senior MP said.

Supplies of sodium fluoride were exported between 2004 and 2010, during the build-up to the civil war when Bashar al-Assad was believed to be stockpiling chemical weapons.

The substance is an ingredient of sarin, which UK experts have established was used in the attack on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August, in which, the US claims, 1,429 people died, it was reported yesterday.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said there was “no evidence” the chemicals – which it licensed for export for use in cosmetics and healthcare – were diverted to weapons programmes.

“These licence applications, which predate the current conflict and EU sanctions, were rigorously assessed and determined to be for legitimate commercial use,” a spokesman said.

The quantities involved were “commensurate with the stated end use,” it said.

However, the fact that such products were allowed to be exported at all has raised concerns and led to a call for an investigation by the House of Commons committee on arms export controls.

Tory Richard Ottaway, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, said: “Any sensible person would be concerned if an ingredient of sarin gas was exported from the UK to Syria. I think this is something for the committee.”

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills granted a number of licences to specialist firms allowing them to deliver sodium fluoride to Syria before the current conflict and European Union sanctions.

Five were issued, in July 2004, September 2005, March 2007, February 2009 and May 2010, the year before the civil conflict erupted.