John Kerry discusses options with foreign counterparts but US says it has not seen conclusive proof of chemical weapons use
The US held a flurry of diplomatic talks on Thursday to discuss possible new action against the Syrian government amid mounting international concern over alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Though it stressed it had still not yet seen conclusive proof of chemical weapon use, the US State Department revealed that secretary of state John Kerry had held seven calls with overseas counterparts on Thursday, and had taken part in a national security council meeting at the White House.
Washington is split over how to respond to the latest attack, which it believes may have killed between 1,000 and 1,800 people. Military leaders such as John Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have urged caution, for fear of becoming further embroiled in a Middle East conflict when it is unclear whether the rebels would back US interests.
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey said in the letter dated 19 August to Representative Eliot Engel. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Others, such as UN ambassador Susan Rice, are thought to be keen to move beyond the limited supply of weapons to rebel forces sanctioned by Barack Obama after the US first determined that the Syrian government used chemical weapons earlier this summer.
“Our red line was the use of chemical weapons. That was crossed a couple of months ago and the president took action,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “If these [new] reports are true it would be an outrageous escalation in the use of chemical weapons by the regime, and there would be a range of further options for us to take.”
She said Kerry spoke by phone with the leader of the Syrian national coalition, the UN secretary general and foreign ministers from France, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and the EU.
“The president has ordered the intelligence community to urgently gather information. We are unable to determine conclusively chemical weapons use but we are doing everything possible to nail down the facts.”
Psaki refused to detail or “inventory” previous arms supply measures, or speculate whether they had any effect in pressuring Assad.
Earlier, France had raised the prospect of the use of force against the Syrian government if allegations of its use of chemical weapons are proved.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Thursday that if the regime was shown to be responsible for the massacre, “we need a reaction by the international community – a reaction of force”. He ruled out the deployment of foreign ground troops but “a reaction that can take a form, I don’t want to be more precise, of force” – raising the possibility of air strikes by western powers.
Hundreds of civilians are known to have died in the attack on Ghouta, a rebel-held area in the Damascus suburbs, and the death toll continues to rise as more bodies are found.
In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said the UK would not rule out any option in its response to the latest massacre.
“Yesterday saw a serious escalation in the crisis in Syria,” the spokeswoman said. “Our immediate priority is to verify the facts and ensure the UN team is granted access to investigate these latest reports. We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed. However, the prime minister and foreign secretary have said many times we cannot rule out any option, in accordance with international law, that might save innocent lives in Syria.”
The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, declared that the apparent gas attack crossed “all red lines” and criticised international inaction, as well as the UN security council, which he said “has not even been able to take a decision”.
On Wednesday, the security council expressed “strong concern” and called for more “clarity” on the use of chemical weapons, but Russia and China insisted on the watering down of a tougher approach backed by the US, UK, France and 32 other governments that called on the UN investigative team already in Damascus to be allowed immediate access to the site of the attack, and to be granted greater latitude by the Syrian government to carry out their enquiries.
Bashar al-Assad‘s regime had previously allowed the UN team – led by a Swedish scientist, Åke Sellström – into the country, but limited its investigation into chemical weapons use to three sites.
Moscow and Beijing have consistently backed Assad throughout the civil war, and the Russian foreign ministry on Wednesday accused rebels of staging the massacre to trigger intervention. China issued a statement saying it opposed the use of chemical weapons, but called for the UN team to “fully consult with the Syrian government and maintain an objective, impartial and professional stance, to ascertain what really happened”.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has said the Ghouta attack was just the latest in a series of chemical weapons atrocities, and joined international calls for Sellström’s investigators to be given immediate access. The area was reported to be still under sustained Syrian army bombardment on Thursday.
“We cannot accept massacres, particularly involving the use of these extremely dangerous weapons. We’re talking about mustard gas, sarin – things that remind us of the horrors of war,” Fabius said. “The last time gas of this type was used on a massive scale was during the Iraq war, by Saddam Hussein.”
France has frequently taken the lead in condemning Assad for atrocities, but has also stressed that its response would be in concert with its allies, leading to criticism of inaction within France. The headline of Le Monde’s editorial on Thursday was: “Indignation is not enough”.