UN chemical arms probe in Syria to start today as US ships sail in Mediterranean

UN chemical arms probe in Syria to start today as US ships sail in Mediterranean

DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
UN chemical arms probe in Syria to start today as US ships sail in Mediterranean

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem (R) meets U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane in Damascus, in this handout photo distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 25, 2013. REUTERS Photo

The Syrian regime yesterday gave the green light for United Nations inspectors to carry out an immediate probe into allegations that chemical weapons were used near Damascus last week. The move comes as U.S. ships expand their presence in the Mediterranean, with a fourth cruise-missile armed warship moving there amid escalating tension.

“An agreement was concluded today [Sunday] in Damascus between the Syrian government and the United Nations during the visit of the U.N. high representative for disarmament, Angela Kane, to allow the U.N. team, led by professor Aake Sellstroem, to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Damascus province,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. 

It added that the agreement was “immediately effective,” but state TV said the two sides were still working to set the date and time of the visit.

A separate statement from the U.N. said a team would be preparing fact-finding activities at the site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, starting today. The purported chemical attack that activists say killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held areas around Damascus took place on Aug. 21. 

The agreement came as allies of the Syrian opposition were pressing for an outside military intervention. The U.S. Navy expanded its presence in the Mediterranean over the weekend with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles being deployed. The U.S. Sixth Fleet, which is responsible in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of allowing it to return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.

Three other destroyers are currently deployed in the area: The USS Gravely, the USS Barry and the USS Ramage. All four are equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles. The reinforcement would allow the Pentagon to act more rapidly if Obama were to order a military strike.

'Very little doubt' that chemicals were used: US official

Meanwhile, the United States and its Western allies pointed the finger of blame at President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident," based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, as well as U.S. and other foreign intelligence, one official in Washington told AFP.

French President Francois Hollande told his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama that "everything was consistent" with the conclusion that Damascus was behind the attack.

"The two presidents agreed to stay in close contact to arrive at a joint response to this unprecedented aggression," the French leader's office said.

And British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned any evidence of a chemical attack may have been destroyed. "The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment," he said.

However, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault implied that a punitive strike on Syria was not imminent, in an interview with France 2 television.

"Once this [U.N.] investigation has ended, we await a firm decision, a clear decision, from the international community. The Security Council will meet," he said.

Syria's opposition says more than 1,300 people died when regime forces unleashed chemical weapons against rebel-held towns east and southwest of Damascus last Aug. 21, while Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of "neurotoxic" symptoms. Damascus has strongly denied it carried out such an attack, instead blaming the rebels.

Moscow warns on intervention

With the drums of a wider war beating, Syria's ally Moscow bluntly warned the West that military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime would be a "tragic mistake."

"We strongly urge those who, by attempting to impose their own results on the U.N. experts, are raising the possibility of a military operation in Syria to use their common sense and refrain from committing a tragic mistake," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Kasevich's said in a statement.
 Syria's foreign ministry said that visiting UN disarmament envoy Angela Kane on Sunday struck the accord with the Syrian government for a probe.

U.S. officials said Obama, who held crisis talks Aug. 24 with top security aides, would make an "informed decision" about how to respond to an "indiscriminate" chemical weapons attack.

Obama also discussed Syria by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Cameron's office said they two leaders agreed the use of chemical weapons would "merit a serious response" - echoing the French calls.

Obama had said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by al-Assad's forces was a "red line" that could trigger Western intervention.

On Aug. 26, a strident warning came from Washington's archfoe Iran. "If the United States crosses this red line, there will be harsh consequences for the White House," armed forces deputy chief of staff Massoud Jazayeri said, without elaborating.

The Arab League is to meet on Aug. 27 to discuss the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, the bloc's deputy chief Ahmed Ben Helli said.

In Israel, President Shimon Peres called for international efforts to "take out" chemical weapons in Syria as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would pull the "trigger" if needed to protect its people.

In the latest eruption of violence, the governor of Hama province in central Syria was killed in a car bombing on Sunday, state television reported, in an attack it blamed on rebels.