U.N chemical weapons set-up team leaves Syria early
UN weapons inspectors leave Syria earlier than planned
UN weapons experts left Syria earlier than planned this morning, paving the way for a possible US strike after Washington concluded the regime was responsible for last week’s deadly chemical attack.
By Josie Ensor, Raf Sanchez and Peter Foster in Washington and Jon Swaine in New York5:26AM BST 31 Aug 2013
The 13 inspectors, led by Ake Sellstrom, brought forward their departure from 7am on Saturday to 4am, despite travel being considered dangerous around that time.
Their departure has opened a window for a possible US strike after President Barack Obama on Friday gave his clearest indication yet that a military intervention was imminent.
He said his administration was looking at the possibility of a “limited, narrow act”, while stressing no final decision had been taken on whether to unleash military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Meawhile, Syria said Saturday morning it was expecting a military attack “at any moment” after the last of the inspectors left Damascus.
A Syrian security official told AFP: “We are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment.”
The experts are due to report straight back to United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and detail their conclusions on whether a poison gas attack actually did take place on August 21, based on samples collected on site.
However, the results from testing of alleged chemical weapons in Syria could take up to two weeks.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, yesterday dismissed any findings of the inspectors as essentially irrelevant because, he said, their mandate was restricted to determining only if chemical weapons had been used, not who launched the attack.
The departure of the inspectors came as the US moved a sixth warship to the eastern Mediterranean.
The USS San Antonio, an amphibious ship with several hundred US Marines on board, was positioned near five US destroyers armed with cruise missiles that could soon be directed against Syria as part of a “limited, precise” strike, according to defence officials.
One of the officials said the San Antonio’s passage into the Mediterranean was long-planned, but officials thought it prudent to keep the ship in the eastern Mediterranean near the destroyers given the current situation.
“It’s been kept there as a precaution,” one said.
US intelligence officials said the Syrian regime had killed 1,429 people in a planned chemical weapons attack last week on the suburbs of Damascus. The death tally was disclosed as officials published detailed evidence to support a possible military strike on Syria.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, warned that “history would judge us” if the world failed to intervene.
American officials released a “substantial body of information” to support their conclusion that Bashar al-Assad’s regime had planned the Aug 21 attack for days.
The four-page document said that intercepted communications between Syrian officials “confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime”.
US satellites also picked up rockets being prepared and launched from regime territory into the rebel-held Ghouta area shortly before hundreds of civilians, including 426 children, began to foam at the mouth and fall dead “unstained by a single drop of blood”.
“Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate,” Mr Kerry said.
“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”
The intelligence had shown beyond all reasonable doubt that the Assad regime carried out the attack, Mr Kerry said.
“The primary question is no longer, ‘What do we know?’ The question is what are we – we collectively – what are we in the world going to do about it?”
He warned that inaction would send a signal to other rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
“If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve.”
The secretary of state’s impassioned statement came in the face of deep scepticism from some sections of Congress and the American public over whether it should strike against the regime.
Both Mr Kerry and Barack Obama were at pains to reassure the public that any intervention would be limited and would not include “boots on the ground”. Mr Obama said: “We’re not considering any open-ended commitment.” The president said he would continue consulting with Congress.
Polls show that half of the American people oppose military action while 42 per cent are in favour. Members of Congress have urged Mr Obama to call them back for an emergency session.
The secretary of state acknowledged the wariness Americans felt after the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war.
“We will not repeat that moment,” he said. However, like the Bush administration before it the Obama White House is facing the prospect of going to war in the Middle East without the blessing of the United Nations. Mr Kerry insisted “we believe in the United Nations” but made clear that the White House would not be constrained by the failure to secure a Security Council resolution.