Iraq Redux? US Accused of Manipulating Syrian Chemical War Evidence

April 27th, 2013 - by admin

CNN – 2013-04-27 00:47:20

Syria: US Manipulating Chemical Weapons Evidence, Like It Did with Iraq
Mariano Castillo and Greg Botelho / CNN

(April 26, 2013) — Syria denies that it has used, or even possesses, chemical weapons, accusing the United States and Britain of lying in order to pressure the embattled Damascus government.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi talked to Russia TV on Friday, dismissing a claim by US officials a day earlier that they had evidence the chemical weapon Sarin had been used in Syria on a small scale.

“Everything that the American minister and British government have said lack credibility,” Al-Zoubi said. “It’s baseless, and it’s a new tactic to put political and economic pressure on Syria.”

Al-Zoubi said the Syrian government is the one that called for an investigation of an incident in which it claimed chemical weapons were used by “terrorist groups.” The government routinely labels rebel fighters as terrorists.

Syria does not have chemical weapons and would not use them if it did, he said.

The Americans “want to manipulate the issue, to let whoever used the chemical weapons … get away (with it), and to repeat the Iraq example,” Al-Zoubi said.

After a meeting on Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah, President Barack Obama reiterated US “preliminary assessments” that “chemical weapons have been used on … populations in Syria.”

He didn’t backtrack from his earlier statements that it would be a “game changer” — as far as how the world deals with Syria — if it’s proven definitively that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on his own people.

Still, Obama didn’t specify what actions the United States might take if that determination is made. For now, he said, the United States is planning to continue its own “very vigorous investigation” and to work with its Middle Eastern allies and the United States.

“We to have act prudently,” the president said. “… But I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world — recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.”

Israel, for one, is asking the United States to take the lead in crafting a response to the evidence of chemical weapons.

“I think the US, as the leader of the Western world, should lead the efforts with our partners in Europe and Israel and to take action with what we’re seeing happening today in Syria,” Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said on Friday.

While he didn’t offer specifics, Danon said that Israeli military intelligence also has information indicating “Syria has used chemical weapons.”

Also Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the man heading the world body’s investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria to report to UN headquarters on Monday for “consultations,” a UN spokesman said.

Ban had “taken note” of comments Thursday from the US government that it has evidence Sarin has been used in Syria.

The UN leader has repeatedly asked the Syrian government to give UN inspectors unrestricted access to the country as it looked into chemical weapons use allegations. The team, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is ready to head to Syria within 48 hours if an agreement is reached.

“We remain in close contact with the Syrian authorities, most recently through another letter (Thursday) urging the Syrian government to grant unconditional and unfettered access to the mission,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “The secretary-general strongly urges the Syrian government to respond swiftly and favorably so that this mission can carry out its work in Syria.”

Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich responded Friday by criticizing Ban’s position as “nothing but a demonstration of a politicized approach.”

“The inspection system proposed is analagous to that used at the end of the previous century in Iraq, which — unlike Syria — was under UN sanctions,” Lukashevich said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website.

“It is difficult to understand why the UN secretariat prefers to take its cue from those who care not about concrete steps to prevent attempts to use chemical weapons in the Syrian crisis but to change the regime of a sovereign state.”

Earlier this week, the Russian foreign minister also warned against a repeat of the “Iraqi scenario” in which claims that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction were the basis of the US-led invasion. He also said that international investigators were asking “too much” by demanding access to all facilities in Syria and to have the right to interview any Syrians.

In a letter sent to lawmakers before US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced there was evidence Sarin has been used in Syria, the White House said that intelligence analysts have concluded “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin.”

The White House cautioned that the “chain of custody” of the chemicals was not clear and that intelligence analysts could not confirm the circumstances under which the Sarin was used, including the role of al-Assad’s regime.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that he supported Obama and that the use of chemical weapons should constitute a “red line,” the UK Press Association reported.

But if a red line has been crossed, Cameron was less clear on what the next steps should be.

Asked if the development could result in sending troops into Syria, Cameron said he didn’t want to see that.

“But I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome,” he said, according to the Press Association. “The question is how do we step up the pressure. And, in my view, what we need to do — and we’re doing some of this already — is shape that opposition, work with them, train them, mentor them, help them, so that we put the pressure on the regime and so what we can bring this to an end.”

The Syrian government has been battling a rebellion for more than two years, bringing international condemnation of the regime and pleas for greater international assistance.

The United Nations estimated in February that more than 70,000 people had died since the conflict began.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria reported that 139 people, including 16 women and 14 children, had been killed across the country on Friday. Twenty-nine of those deaths were in and around Damascus, while 27 were in Homs province.

Members of the rebel Free Syrian Army clashed with government forces in at least 115 places around Syria on Friday, during which the opposition group reported 235 bombing attacks — including from warplanes and surface-to-surface missiles.

CNN’s Yousuf Basil, Sara Sidner, Saad Abedine and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.

Israel Says Syria Used Chemical Weapons; Russia Warns of ‘Iraqi Scenario’
Greg Botelho and Elise Labott / CNN

(April 24, 2013) — Are Syrian forces using chemical weapons in their years-long fight to hold on to power?

That’s what the head of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence research and analysis division said Tuesday, becoming the latest to allege that Damascus was employing weapons banned under international law against its own people.

The claim further stoked the debate about the international community’s role in Syria, where the United Nations estimated this month that 70,000 people have been killed since the conflict flared in March 2011. US President Barack Obama, for one, has said the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people would be a “game changer” in how his and other nations address the crisis.

On Tuesday, his nation’s top diplomat said Tuesday that the United States does not know definitively that such chemical weapons had been deployed. In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also did not confirm the use of such weapons when the two spoke by phone earlier in the day.

“The information that I have at this point does not confirm it to me (in a manner) that I would feel comfortable commenting on it as a fact,” Kerry said.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, though not offering any direct evidence, stated firmly on Tuesday the belief that Syrian forces have increasingly used “ground-to-ground missiles, rockets and chemical weapons.”

He specified that Sarin gas — an odorless nerve agent that can quickly kill thousands by causing convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure — was most likely used, as were “neutralizing and nonlethal chemical weapons.” Brun pointed to one episode on March 19 in which, he said, “victims suffered from shrunken pupils, foaming from the mouth and other symptoms which indicate the use of deadly chemical weapons.”

“According to our professional assessment, the regime has used deadly chemical weapons against armed rebels on a number of occasions in the past few months,” said Brun, according to quotes provided by the IDF.

In a letter to the UN secretary-general in December, Syria said the United States had falsely accused it of using chemical weapons.

Before the Israeli official’s announcement Tuesday, a United Nations-led investigation was already looking into accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Tuesday against jumping to conclusions by repeating the “Iraqi scenario” in which claims that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction were the basis of the US-led invasion.

Lavrov accused other nations of “politicizing the issue.” Further, he criticized how international investigators looking into an alleged use of chemical investigators in Aleppo had demanded access to to all facilities in Syria and to have the right to interview any Syrian.

“I believe that is too much,” Lavrov said.

US: Chemical Weapon Use ‘Difficult to Confirm’
While he didn’t detail a possible US response, White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday called the potential use of chemical weapons inside Syria “unacceptable.”

At the same time, he said, “The use of chemical weapons is difficult to confirm.”

In addition to Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons against rebels, another concern is that parts of the government’s stockpile of chemical weapons — which analysts believe is one of the world’s largest and includes Sarin, mustard and VX gases — could end up, if they haven’t already, in others’ hands.

A senior US official told CNN on Tuesday that Syrian government forces have carried out several movements of chemical weapons during the past month.

US officials said they believe the chemical stockpiles remain under government control, but the movements have complicated the US effort to keep track of them.

Asked last week at a hearing whether the United States could guarantee that it could secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile if the government were to fall, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was noncommittal.

“Not as I sit here today, simply because they have been moving it, and the number of sites is quite numerous,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that the US stresses to Syria, “in the strongest possible terms, (its) obligations … to safeguard its chemical weapons stockpiles and not to use or transfer such weapons to terrorist groups like Hezbollah.”

Addressing the press Monday, a day before Brun’s briefing, Israel’s defense minister did not seem to indicate that his government has absolute proof of chemical weapons use in Syria.

But if there was, Israel is prepared to act.

“We are ready to operate if any rogue element is going to put his hands or any chemical agents are going to be delivered toward rogue elements in the region,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

Analyst: ‘A Fantastic Weapon of Fear’
Syria isn’t one of the 188 nations that have signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention that prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons. Fellow Middle Eastern nations having taken a similar stance, officially refusing to sign on until Israel signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yet Syria has denied having such weapons, as well as using them during its ongoing civil war. (Damascus has accused rebels of using such weapons, though, including in an attack last month in the northern province of Aleppo that state media claimed killed 25 people.) It’s also expressed concerns that its government might be falsely implicated if “terrorists” — a term it uses to refer to rebel fighters — employ such weapons.

“What raises concerns … is our serious fear that some of the countries backing terrorism and terrorists might provide the armed terrorist groups with chemical weapons and claim that it was the Syrian government that used the weapons,” the state-run news agency SANA reported.

Unlike nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are inexpensive to develop and stockpile.

This lends them a disproportionate importance for Syria and the region, analysts say.

“In the Middle East, chemical weapons have been seen as a possible counter to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” Susan B. Martin of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London said in March.

Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said last month that Syria embraced a chemical weapons program as a way to bolster its strategic strength despite economic weaknesses, especially after Israel imposed a series of humiliating military defeats on the Arab world.

“The best way to operate asymmetrically was for Syria to have its chemical weapons program,” she said.

According to Esfandiary, chemical weapons’ utility is “quite limited,” as they are more of a deterrent than a real battlefield or tactical weapon.

“If you shoot a missile at a population center, you can be fairly certain that anyone it hits will die,” she said. “Chemical weapons use is not as clear-cut as that. It depends on topography, weather, how you deliver the chemical weapons, and you can’t always be clear it will cause maximum casualty.”

Their real power is in psychological, she said.

“It’s a fantastic weapon of fear.”

CNN’s Elise Labott, Barbara Starr and Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.

Report: Syrian Officials Claim Chlorine, Saline Mix Used in Aleppo Attack

(March 24, 2013) — The Syrian government has sent UN investigators the results of blood and soil testing from a mysterious attack that killed 25 people and injured more than 110 others, CNN affiliate ITN reported Sunday.

Syria has claimed that rebels used chemical weapons in an attack Tuesday in Khan al-Asal in the northern province of Aleppo, according to state-run media. Opposition officials have said rebels don’t have access to chemical weapons or the missiles needed to use them in an attack.

Other rebel leaders have claimed Syrian troops fired “chemical rockets” at civilians and opposition forces.

US President Barack Obama and other American officials have said in recent days there was no intelligence to substantiate reports that rebels used chemical weapons against government troops.

And a US military official directly familiar with preliminary intelligence analysis of the attack told CNN there were “strong indications” that no chemical weapon was used. The United States, in part, looked at video of the victims released by state-run television.

Analysts believe it’s possible people in the video were deliberately exposed to a caustic agent such as chlorine, the official said. But that would not be the same as using chemical weapons such as a nerve or blister agent.

Sunday, ITN reported three unnamed Syrian medical or military officials said Damascus believes a small amount of chlorine mixed with saline and a homemade rocket were used.

“All sources we have spoken to say there is a pattern of victims suffering a variety of respiratory complaints from mild breathing difficulty, through fainting and vomiting to loss of consciousness and death,” reporter Alex Thomson wrote on his blog. “In most cases there were no signs of any conventional blast injuries in terms of external lacerations, burns or fractures, they say.”

Victims’ blood samples, soil samples and rocket debris were sent to the United Nations, he reported.

Thomson wrote that the sources said the rocket was fired from an area that has been controlled by the radical Islamist group al-Nusra Front for “some time.” The group is one of the most effective in the Syrian resistance, drawing on foreign fighters with combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere. In December, the US State Department moved to blacklist the rebel group as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Syrian government last week sent a written request to the UN for an investigation. The United Kingdom and France also put in requests.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert and a senior research fellow for the European Union Institute for Security Studies, cast doubt on the use of chlorine, saying in an e-mail that one small rocket couldn’t deliver the quantity needed to kill 25 people.

Chlorine isn’t listed on any of the three lists of chemicals banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997. “It is no longer considered effective as a warfare agent, ” he wrote.

Thomson added that in war, both sides lie, but this “is the most detailed account yet of what the Syrians believe happened.”

Analysts believe the Syrian government may have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Specifically, the supply is believed to include Sarin, mustard and VX gases, which are banned under international law. Syria has denied the allegation.

The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons. Syria is not one of the 188 signatories to the convention.

In recent months, reports have repeatedly surfaced that Syrian forces moved some of the chemical weapons inventories, possibly because of deteriorating security in the country, raising fears the stockpile could fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked groups working with the opposition should Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government fall.

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