Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By LIZ SLY The Washington Post
BEIRUT — U.N. chemical weapons inspectors on Monday successfully entered a Damascus suburb that was allegedly hit last week with poison gas, part of an assault on three rebel strongholds that left hundreds of people dead.
A U.N. inspector gathers evidence at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya on Monday.
U.N. chemical weapons experts visit victims of an apparent gas attack at a hospital near Damascus on Monday. “This is the effect of chemicals,” said a man who appeared to be a doctor.
The convoy carrying the inspectors came under sniper fire in its first attempt to access the affected areas, and one vehicle was hit, U.N. officials said. But the team was able to retreat and then travel to the town of Moadamiya, southwest of Damascus.
Video live-streamed from a field hospital showed members of the U.N. Chemical Weapons Investigation Team, dressed in blue helmets and bulletproof vests, examining patients and talking to doctors who had treated some of the victims.
"This is the effect of chemicals," one man, who appeared to be a doctor, told one of the inspectors as he took notes on a clipboard.
Also Monday, three key American allies -- Britain, France and Turkey -- indicated that they would back U.S. military action against Syria in response to the alleged attacks, even without a United Nations mandate.
In a strongly worded statement Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry placed the blame squarely on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for an "undeniable" chemical attack, and he warned that there would be "accountability" for it.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity," Kerry said. President Barack Obama "will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons," he said. "But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people."
Russia quickly condemned the idea of intervention from the West, saying an attack on Syria by the United States or its allies will only create more problems in the region and lead to more bloodshed. The U.N. Security Council has been stymied in taking strong action on Syria by veto-wielding Russia, a longtime ally of Assad.
The alleged chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last Wednesday appeared to cross a "red line" set by Obama a year ago regarding the use of such weapons by the Assad government.
Based on photographs, videos and witness accounts that emerged last week, U.S. officials said they have "little doubt" that Assad's forces carried out the attack, in which rockets apparently carrying some form of nerve agent struck three rebel-held strongholds. The nonprofit Doctors Without Borders estimates that 355 people were killed and more than 3,600 were injured. If confirmed, it would be the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed more than 3,000 people in an Iraqi Kurdish village 25 years ago.
The United States has been consulting with its allies about possible responses, and on Monday the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey said in separate radio interviews that they would be prepared to back U.S. action outside the parameters of a United Nations mandate.
"Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the U.N. Security Council?" British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on BBC radio. "I would argue yes, it is; otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don't think that's an acceptable situation."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Turkish Milliyet daily newspaper that more than 35 nations are considering joining the United States in taking action against Syria, and that Turkey was among them.
"We always prioritize acting together with the international community, with United Nations decisions. If such a decision doesn't emerge from the U.N. Security Council, other alternatives ... would come onto the agenda," Davutoglu said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius predicted that there would be a response to the suspected attack and that it would take place soon.
"It will be negotiated in the coming days," Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. "All the options are open. The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing."
After initially balking, Syria agreed on Sunday to allow the inspectors to visit the area where the alleged attack occurred.
The team's first vehicle was in a buffer zone between government and rebel positions when it was "deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers," a U.N. statement said.
No one was hurt. The snipers were "armed terrorist groups" or loyalist troops, depending on which group was asked.