France Freezes Company Assets Over Syria Chemical Weapons

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. PHOTO: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah.

France on Friday froze the assets for six months of companies based in Syria, Lebanon and China after they were linked to an alleged chemical weapons programme in Syria.

The businesses include Sigmatec and the Al Mahrous Group, both based in Damascus, Technolab in Lebanon, and a trading company in Guangzhou in China, according to a list published in the government’s official gazette.

Two Syrian nationals will also face asset freezes, as well as a person born in Lebanon in 1977 whose nationality was not specified.

The asset freezes were signed by French Finance minister Bruno Le Maire.

In January, France sanctioned 25 people and companies based in Syria, but also French, Lebanese and Chinese, over suspicions of fuelling the development of chemical weapons in the war-ravaged country.

The companies targeted included importers and distributors of metals, electronics, logistics and shipping.

Some thirty countries meet in Paris on Friday to put in place mechanisms to better identify and punish those responsible for using nerve agents such as Sarin and chlorine in attacks.

After hundreds of people were killed in chemical attacks near Damascus in August 2013, a landmark deal with Russia was struck to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stash, staving off US air strikes.

Despite the deal, a suspected chlorine and sarin attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7 triggered a wave of punitive missile strikes against alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria by the United States, Britain and France.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is due to soon release a fact-finding report into the suspected Douma attack.

AFP

Macron, May Demand Fight Against Chemical Weapons

Theresa May (L) and Emmanuel Macron (R)                                                                               Credit: AFP

 

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday urged the world to keep up the fight against chemical weapons on the anniversary of an international convention banning their use.

“On the 21st anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and following Douma and Salisbury, Theresa May and I call with one voice for the world to join us in upholding the vital global prohibition on chemical weapons use,” Macron tweeted in English and French, referring to recent chemical attacks in Syria and Britain.

May’s office tweeted a similar statement, also in both languages, saying “we should never go back” on ending the production, stockpiling and use “of these terrible weapons.”

Chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, were first used on the battlefields of World War I and also in 1988 by late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against civilians in Halabja, Iraq.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convention, which oversees the destruction of such arms, came into effect on April 29, 1997.

Macron’s and May’s statements came two weeks after the United States, France and Britain carried out missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over its suspected use of chemicals in an attack near Damascus on April 7 in which over 40 people died.

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the application of the 1997 convention, are currently in Syria to probe the assault, which Syria and Russia say was staged.

Russia has also denied accusations that it used a Soviet-made nerve agent to poison a former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Western countries expelled scores of Russian diplomats over the attack.

AFP

At Destroyed Syria Lab, Workers Deny Producing Toxic Weapons

 

At Destroyed Syria Lab, Workers Deny Producing Toxic Weapons
Journalists inspect the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, during a press tour organised by the Syrian information ministry, on April 14, 2018. Photo: LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

 

Plastic gloves and face masks lay scattered in the rubble of a Syrian research lab destroyed by Western strikes on Saturday, where an official denied the centre was developing chemical weapons.

US, British and French strikes slammed into a series of targets around Damascus that the Western countries said were linked to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons programme.

One multi-storey complex, in the capital’s northern district of Barzeh, had been completely reduced to rubble, AFP’s correspondents saw during a government-sponsored tour on Saturday.

Its roof had been punched down and several walls appeared on the verge of collapse.

Even hours after the strikes wrapped up, plumes of smoke wafted lazily up from the building and a burning smell still hung in the air.

“The building had three storeys: a basement, ground floor, and second floor,” said Said Said, an engineer who identified himself as head of the centre’s paint and plastics department.

“It had labs and departments that were unfortunately completely destroyed, with all their equipment and furniture. Thank God, no one was here,” he told AFP.

The bombardment, including both cruise missiles and air-to-surface strikes, hit Syria around 4:00 am on Saturday (0100 GMT), jolting people awake in the capital’s nearby residential neighbourhoods.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported several missiles hit a research centre in Barzeh, “destroying a building that included scientific labs and a training centre”.

‘Children’s toys’

The site, according to Western powers, was part of the Syrian government’s “chemical weapons infrastructure.”

But Said told AFP only non-lethal research and development was underway at the centre.

“As we work in civilian pharmaceutical and chemical research, we did not expect that we would be hit,” he said.

Instead, the centre had been producing antidotes to scorpion and snake venom while running tests on chemical products used in making food, medicine and children’s toys, according to Said.

“If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing,” he added.

Saturday’s strikes came in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on a rebel-held town east of Damascus one week ago, which medics say killed more than 40 people.

Inspectors from the world’s chemical watchdog were set to enter the town of Douma on Saturday to investigate the claims.

Said said the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had visited the site in Barzeh in recent years and had declared it free of any toxic weapons.

“The OPCW used to stay in the two upper rooms, and use the labs, and we would cooperate with them completely,” he said.

“The OPCW has proven in two reports that this building and the centre as a whole are empty and do not produce any chemical weapons.”

AFP

British Court Rules Chemical Weapons Body Can Test Skripals’ Blood

Police don protective coveralls with breathing equipment on the grounds of a cement plant in the village of Durrington, near Salisbury, southern England on March 19, 2018, as investigations in connection with an apparent nerve agent attack in the city on March 4 continue. Ben STANSALL / AFP

 

Blood samples from former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia can be taken for testing by the OPCW world chemical weapons body, an English judge ruled Thursday.

The Skripals, victims of a nerve agent attack that Britain has blamed on Russia, are in a coma in a critical but stable condition in hospital in Salisbury, southwest England.

Britain has called in the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to verify their findings that the nerve agent was one developed by the Soviet Union and held by Russia.

Moscow denies all responsibility for the March 4 attack and the poisoning has plunged relations between Britain and Russia into a severe crisis.

Judge David Williams ruled it was lawful for doctors “to take blood samples for provision to OPCW and to provide copies of medical notes to OPCW”.

The High Court judge concluded that it was in the best interests of the Skripals, who are unconscious and therefore unable to give their consent.

He made the ruling following a private hearing earlier this week in the Court of Protection in London, where issues relating to people who lack the mental capacity to make decisions are considered.

The balance of judgement “falls very clearly in favour of the taking of the samples, their submission for analysis by OPCW and the disclosure of the medical notes to aid that process,” Williams said.

“In so far as it is necessary it is also lawful and in their best interests that the existing samples are provided to OPCW for further testing.”

Details on health, OPCW probe 

The ruling, published online by the English judiciary, went into greater details about the Skripals’ state of health, what the OPCW want to do and the evidence British officials put before the court.

“Both Mr and Ms Skripal remain in hospital under heavy sedation,” Williams said.

“The precise effect of their exposure on their long-term health remains unclear albeit medical tests indicate that their mental capacity might be compromised to an unknown and so far unascertained degree.

“It is not inconceivable that their condition could rapidly deteriorate,” he added.

“On the evidence currently available, it is not possible to say whether the current lack of capacity”, to give consent, “is temporary or permanent”.

The ruling said it was the OPCW’s wish to collect fresh blood samples, undertake their own analysis in relation to evidence of nerve agents, and conduct DNA analysis to confirm the samples originally tested in Britain’s defence laboratories as being from the Skripals.

They also want to analyse their medical records and re-test the samples already analysed by the British labs.

The OPCW probe is “likely to produce the most robust, objective, independent and reliable material which will inform any determination of what happened.

“That might simply confirm the current conclusions, it might elaborate or clarify them, it might reach a different conclusion,” the judge said.

Blood already analysed 

Williams summarised witness evidence put before him, but ruled that their names could not be published.

The judge said a chemical and biological analyst from Britain’s Porton Down military laboratory had told the court they had analysed blood samples from the Skripals.

“The findings indicated exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent,” the judge summarised.

A representative from the Foreign Office Arms Control told the court that Britain requested assistance from the OPCW to obtain independent, internationally recognised expert identification of the nerve agent used.

“Their report… will be of real importance for many reasons including in relation to the ongoing criminal process, detecting and deterring any further attacks, allaying false rumour and in supporting the international response,” the judge said.

Furthermore, “If the OPCW results differ from UK tests the UK national authority will be able to share them with clinicians to inform medical treatment.”

A treating consultant told the hearings that Skripal, 66, was unable to communicate at all, while his daughter, 33, could not communicate in any meaningful way.

Their condition is not expected to change in the immediate or near future.

They are both being treated on the basis that they would wish to be kept alive and to achieve optimal recovery, the consultant told the court.

AFP

Russia Condemns Alleged Chemical Weapons In Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly at Moscow’s Manezh exhibition centre on March 01, 2018.
Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

 

 

The Kremlin on Tuesday condemned what it called unfounded allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, insisting that the country’s stockpile was destroyed under international supervision.

“The provocations are continuing that spawn such insinuations and unfounded accusations against the Syrian leadership,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

He commented after the UN Human Rights Council on Monday ordered investigators to examine the latest violence in Syria.

The Council condemned “the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardments against civilians and the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta”.

“In Syria, the chemical weapons were destroyed. That was verified not only by the Russian side but by the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons),” Peskov insisted.

Damascus and its key ally Moscow face growing pressure after reports last month of suspected chlorine use in the battered rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where Syria’s army is carrying out a ground and air assault.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a child suffocated to death and 13 other people fell ill from a suspected chlorine attack in the Eastern Ghouta region on February 25.

A doctor who treated those affected told AFP that he suspected chemical weapons, most likely a chlorine gas attack, with a three-year-old dying of asphyxiation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately responded that the reports were “bogus”.

Peskov said Tuesday that for Russia, such accusations need to be based on “the findings of an international commission, an international working group, only the result of an impartial investigation.”

“In the absence of such an investigation, all accusations are nothing but insinuations,” he said.

The Syrian government has denied possessing chemical weapons and said that it considers their use unacceptable.

So far the bombardment by Syrian regime forces on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 700 civilians, the Syrian Observatory says.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has said the region’s 400,000 residents “live in hell on Earth”.

AFP

Russia Vetoes UN Resolution On Damascus

Russia Vetoes UN Resolution On DamascusFor the umpteenth time, Russia has vetoed a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council, that would have condemned last week’s alleged chemical attack in Syria.

The resolution which was presented by the United States, United Kingdom and France, demanded that Damascus cooperates with investigators.

The proposed resolution would have backed an investigation on the ground by the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons.

This would be the eighth time Russia has protected its Syrian ally at the council.

Samples ‘Confirm IS Used Mustard Agent In Iraq Attack’

ISChemical weapons expert say sulphur mustard was used in 2015 in an attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq blamed on Islamic State (IS) militants.

In August 2015, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was sent samples after 35 Peshmerga fighters became ill near Irbil.

On Monday, the sources say the samples tested positive for sulphur mustard.

If confirmed, it would be the first known use of chemical weapons in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

OPCW experts recently concluded that sulphur mustard was used in August in neighbouring Syria, during fighting between Isis and rebel forces.

IS Suspected Of Chemical Attack On Kurds In Iraq

isisGermany has accused Islamic State (IS) militants of using chemical weapons in an attack against Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq.

German officials say Kurdish troops suffered breathing difficulties after an attack near the city of Irbil earlier this month.

They did not mention what may have been used but U.S. officials told local media that they believe it was mustard agent.

U.S. officials said that the IS could have obtained the mustard agent in neighbouring Syria.

IS has previously been accused of using chlorine gas against Kurdish fighters.

Chlorine is a choking agent whose use as a chemical weapon dates back to World War One. It is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits all use of toxic agents on the battlefield.

 

 

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Wild Card: Chlorine Gas

A man breathes through an oxygen mask inside a field hospital in Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama

Chlorine gas attacks in Syria this month, if proven, expose a major loophole in an international deal which promised to remove chemical weapons from Syria and suggest chemical warfare could persist after the removal operation has finished.

President Bashar al-Assad agreed with the United States and Russia to dispose of his chemical weapons – an arsenal which Damascus had never previously formally acknowledged – after hundreds of people were killed in a Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of the capital last August.

Washington and its Western allies said it was Assad’s forces who unleashed the nerve agent, in the world’s worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. The government blamed the rebel side in Syria’s civil war, which is now in its fourth year.

Syria has vowed to hand over or destroy its entire arsenal by the end of this week, but still has roughly 20 per cent of the chemicals it declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In addition, chlorine gas that was never included on the list submitted to the OPCW is now allegedly being used on the battlefield, leading some countries to consider requesting an investigation, possibly through the United Nations.

Attacks this month in several areas of the country share characteristics that have led analysts to believe that there is a coordinated chlorine campaign, with growing evidence that it is the government side dropping the bombs.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington had indications that chlorine was probably used by government forces in Syria.

“We are examining allegations that the government was responsible,” she said. “Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what’s happened here.”

France Says Ready To Punish Syria Despite British No Vote

France said on Friday it still backed action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for an apparent poison gas attack on civilians, despite a British parliamentary vote against it.

An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close Assad ally, seized on the British no vote as evidence that “people are beginning to understand” the dangers of military action.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his country would keep seeking an international coalition to act together on Syria, where hundreds of people were killed in last week’s reported chemical attacks. Syria denies using chemical weapons.

“It is the goal of President (Barack) Obama and our government … whatever decision is taken, that it be an international collaboration and effort,” he said.

French President Francois Hollande told the daily Le Monde that he still supported taking “firm” punitive action over an attack he said had caused “irreparable” harm to the Syrian people, adding that he would work closely with France’s allies.

Asked if France could take action without Britain, Hollande replied: “Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France.”

The British parliamentary defeat on Thursday of a government motion on Syria has set back U.S.-led efforts to take military action against Damascus.

Russia fiercely opposes any such action, backing the assertions of Damascus that Syrian rebels were behind the chemical attacks. Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said the British vote reflected majority opinion in Europe. “People are beginning to understand how dangerous such scenarios are,” Ushakov told reporters.

Any military strike looks likely to be delayed at least until U.N. investigators report back after leaving Syria on Saturday.

Hollande is not constrained by the need for parliamentary approval of any move to intervene in Syria and could act, if he chose, before lawmakers debate the issue on Wednesday.

“All the options are on the table. France wants action that is in proportion and firm against the Damascus regime,” he said.

“There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies,” Hollande said.

“CORE INTERESTS”

Britain will not join any armed action in Syria after parliament voted 285-272 against a motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to authorize a military response in principle.

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged that the United States would be disappointed that its close ally would not be involved, but said: “I don’t expect that the lack of British participation will stop any action.

U.S. officials suggested Obama would be willing to proceed with limited actions against Syria even without allied support.

“President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement after the British vote. “He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”

In a briefing with senior lawmakers on Thursday, Obama administration officials said they had “no doubt” Assad’s government had used chemical weapons, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, who joined the call, told Reuters.

Cameron said he would not override the British parliament. “I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons,” he said after a vote that reflected misgivings stemming from Britain’s role in the 2003 Iraq war.

NO SMOKING GUN

U.S. officials acknowledged on Thursday they lacked proof that Assad personally ordered last week’s poison gas attack, and some allies have warned that military action without U.N. Security Council authorization may make matters worse.

On the call with lawmakers, U.S. officials, including Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, cited evidence of chemical weapons use including “intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials”, said Engel, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

After the 90-minute briefing, some lawmakers said the administration still had work to do to convince the public.

“The president is going to have to make his case, I think, to the American people I think before he takes any action,” said Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Expectations of imminent turmoil eased as the diplomatic process was seen playing out into next week, and the White House emphasized that any action would be “very discrete and limited”, and in no way comparable with the Iraq war.

Syrian opposition sources said Assad’s forces had removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect them from a Western attack, and Russia was reported to be moving ships into the region.

Syria says rebels perpetrated the gas attacks, a version dismissed by Washington and its allies.

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors visited a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus on Friday to see soldiers affected by an apparent chemical attack, a Reuters witness said.

The inspectors have spent the week visiting rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus affected by gas attacks.

Witnesses said the investigators were meeting soldiers at the Mezze Military Airport who state media said were exposed to poison gas after finding chemical agents in a tunnel used by rebels in the Damascus suburb of Jobar last Saturday.

CHINA OPPOSES HASTY U.N. ACTION

The United Nations says the team will leave Syria on Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

France and Germany urged the world body to pass its report to the Security Council as soon as possible “so that it can fulfill its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime”.

The United States, Britain and France have said action could be taken with or without a Security Council resolution, which would probably be vetoed by Russia. But some countries are more cautious: Italy said it would not join any military operation without Council authorization.

Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council to isolate Moscow and demonstrate that other countries are behind air strikes.

A report from Moscow that Russia is sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean underscored the complications around even a limited military strike, although Russia has said it will not be drawn into military conflict.

Ambassadors of the five veto-wielding permanent Security Council members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – have discussed a draft resolution that would authorize “all necessary force” in response to the alleged gas attack, but made no progress on Thursday, a council diplomat said.

China said there should be no rush to force council action against Syria until the U.N. inspectors complete their work.

“Before the investigation finds out what really happened, all parties should avoid prejudging the results, and certainly ought not to forcefully push for the Security Council to take action,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Ban in a phone call, Xinhua reported.

“A political resolution is still the only way out,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross joined a chorus of voices urging caution, saying further escalation would force more Syrians to flee and worsen the plight of civilians.

According to the U.S. national security officials, evidence that forces loyal to Assad were responsible goes beyond the circumstantial to include electronic intercepts and some tentative scientific samples from the site.

“This was not a rogue operation,” one U.S. official said.

In Damascus, residents and opposition forces say Assad’s forces appeared to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in the centre as a precaution.

People unable to decide whether to leave for neighboring Lebanon said the border was already jammed.

“We’re hearing people are spending hours – like 12 or 14 hours – waiting in line at the border,” said Nabil, who was considering leaving town for Beirut with his wife and young daughter, “just until the strike is over”.

Obama Makes Case For Punishing Syria, Delay Looks Likely

President Barack Obama told Americans a military strike against Syria is in their interest following a gas attack last week and Britain said armed action would be legal, but intervention looked set to be delayed until U.N. investigators report back.

Senior Obama administration officials are expected to brief congressional leaders later on Thursday, with lawmakers complaining they have not been properly consulted about plans to respond to what Washington says was the gassing of civilians.

While U.N. chemical weapons inspectors spent a third day combing the rebel-held suburb where the attack took place, elsewhere in Damascus traffic moved normally, with some extra army presence but little indication of any high alert.

A parliamentary debate in London revealed deep misgivings stemming from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After pressure from lawmakers, the British government – a key player in any proposed air assault on Syria – has promised parliament a decisive vote once the U.N. weapons inspectors report their findings.

The United Nations said its team of inspectors investigating the attacks, which killed hundreds of people, will leave Syria on Saturday and then report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

France and Germany urged the world body to pass its report on to the decision-making Security Council as soon as possible “so that it can fulfill its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime”.

The United States, Britain and France say they can act with or without a U.N. Security Council resolution, which is likely to be vetoed by Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, some countries are raising qualms: Italy said it would not join any military operation without Security Council authorization.

Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council to isolate Moscow and demonstrate that other countries are behind air strikes.

“It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the (U.N.) Security Council,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament.

He published legal advice given to the government, under which military action would be lawful for humanitarian reasons even if a Security Council resolution were blocked.

The International Committee of the Red Cross joined a chorus of international voices urging caution.

“Further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense,” said Magne Barth, head of the ICRC delegation in Syria.

Increasing expectations that any action will be delayed ended a three-day sell off on world share markets on Thursday, although investors were still on edge over future turmoil in the Middle East.

“SHOT ACROSS THE BOW”

Obama sought to win over a war-weary American public by saying intervention in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in two and a half years of civil war, would serve U.S. national security interests.

“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” he told “PBS Newshour” in a televised interview.

While saying he had not yet made a decision on military action, Obama left little doubt the choice was not whether but when to punish Syria for the gas attacks.

“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” he said on Wednesday evening.

Syria denies blame for the gas attacks and says they were perpetrated by rebels. Washington and its allies say the denial is not credible.

A report from Moscow that Russia plans to send two warships to the eastern Mediterranean underscored the complications surrounding even a limited military strike, although Russia has said it will not be drawn into military conflict.

Western leaders are expected in Russia next Thursday for a meeting of the Group of 20 big economies, an event that could influence the timing of any strikes. The hosts have made clear their view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.

“At this stage it is necessary to take all needed actions to avert possible negative developments … or some kind of military action regarding Syria,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told state-run Rossiya-24 television. “And that is what we … focusing our efforts on now.”

A spokesman for the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the opposition was confident Western leaders were prepared to act.

SNC leader Ahmed Jarba met French President Francois Hollande. An SNC spokesman said they discussed a two-wave intervention to first target installations used to launch chemical weapons and then hit other government bases in Syria.

“We are very happy. France and its partners are quite decided to punish the Syrian regime,” SNC envoy Monzer Makhous told Reuters after the talks. “Then there will be military aid to help the opposition to change the balance of power.”

Hollande urged Jarba to create a credible military force, highlighting Western concern that the mainstream opposition is unable to control al Qaeda-linked militias on the ground in Syria. Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al Qaeda enemies.

In Damascus, residents and opposition forces said Assad’s forces appeared to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in the centre in preparation for Western military action.

People unable to decide whether to leave for neighboring Lebanon said the border was already jammed.

“We’re hearing people are spending hours – like 12 or 14 hours – waiting in line at the border,” said Nabil, who was considering leaving town for Beirut with his wife and young daughter, “just until the strike is over.”

Arguing for measured intervention after long resisting deeper involvement in Syria, Obama insisted that while Assad’s government must be punished, he intended to avoid repeating U.S. errors from the Iraq war.

“I have no interest in any open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable,” Obama said.

Despite opinion polls showing most Americans oppose deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict, Obama has been under pressure to enforce a “red line” against chemical weapons use, which he declared just over a year ago.

The likeliest option, U.S. officials say, would be to launch cruise missiles from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean in a campaign that would last days.

Obama cited chemical weapons dangers to U.S. Middle Eastern allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan and U.S. bases in the region, and said America’s national interests could be at risk if Syrian chemical arms fell into the wrong hands.

Although decisive action against Syria is strongly backed by many in the U.S. Congress, there have been growing calls for Obama to seek congressional authorization before ordering the use of force, something he is considered unlikely to do. Wrangling over the issue could complicate any attack timetable.

Obama Studies Options After Syria Gas Attack, Consults UK’s Cameron

President Barack Obama and his top military and national security advisers hashed out options on Saturday for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria amid “increasing signs” that the government used poison gas against civilians.

Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron, a top U.S. ally, and agreed that chemical weapon use by Syrian President Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would merit a “serious response,” a spokesperson for the prime minister said in a statement.

Syrian opposition accounts that between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed this week by gas in munitions fired by pro-government forces, and video footage of victims’ bodies, have stoked demands abroad for a robust, U.S.-led response after 2 1/2 years of international inaction on Syria’s conflict.

Syria sought to avert blame by saying its soldiers had found chemical weapons in rebel tunnels. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Syrian counterpart on Thursday to chide the government for not allowing U.N. inspectors access to the site.

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s civil war, but reports of the killings near Damascus have put pressure on the White House to make good on the president’s comment a year ago that chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States.

The United States is repositioning naval forces in the Mediterranean to give Obama the option for an armed strike.

“President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Malaysia as he began a week-long trip to Asia.

“We have done that and we are prepared to exercise whatever option – if he decides to employ one of those options.”

The White House declined to list what options were discussed on Saturday and said Washington was still gathering details about the attack.

“In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” it said in a statement.

American and European security sources have said U.S. and allied intelligence agencies made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces in the attack. The United Nations has requested access to the site.

Obama spoke to Cameron after the White House meeting. A spokesperson for the British prime minister said the two men noted increasing signs of Syrian government culpability.

‪”They are both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people,” the spokesperson said.

Cameron also spoke to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper spoke to French President François Hollande.

SYRIA REJECTS BLAME

Obama said in a CNN interview broadcast on Friday that chemical weapon use on a large scale would start “getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region”.

But Americans strongly oppose U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war and believe Washington should stay out of the conflict even if reports that Syria’s government used deadly chemicals to attack civilians are confirmed, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Syrian state television said soldiers found chemical materials on Saturday in tunnels that had been used by rebels, rejecting the blame for carrying out a nerve gas attack.

The state news agency, SANA, said soldiers had “suffered from cases of suffocation” when rebels used poison gas “as a last resort” after government forces made “big gains” against them in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.

The leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, and the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idriss, denied on Saturday that rebels had used chemical weapons.

Jabra said the “most important cause” of the attack was the silence and inaction of the international community, especially the West.

Kerry called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Thursday and told him the Damascus government should have let U.N. inspectors have access to the site of the alleged gas attack, a State Department official said.

“If, as they claimed, the Syrian regime has nothing to hide, it should have allowed immediate and unimpeded access to the site rather than continuing to attack the affected area to block access and destroy evidence,” the official said, referring to Kerry’s message in the call.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there was growing consensus in the West that Assad’s government was responsible.

“It’s very clear, I think, that the U.S. and the Western governments think that the regime did it,” he said.

“Whether their response would immediately be military or not, I don’t know. I suspect that first they’re probably going to push for diplomacy, but probably with a pretty short fuse.”

Kerry made a series of diplomatic calls to counterparts in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey on Saturday.

In the most authoritative account so far, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said three hospitals near Damascus had reported 355 deaths in the space of three hours out of about 3,600 admissions with nerve gas-type symptoms.

A senior U.N. official arrived in Damascus to seek access for inspectors to the site of last Wednesday’s attack.

Major world powers – including Russia, Assad’s main ally which has long blocked U.N.-sponsored intervention against him – have urged the Syrian leader to cooperate with U.N. chemical weapons inspectors already in Damascus to pursue earlier allegations.

But Russia said the rebels were impeding an inquiry and that Assad would have no interest in using poison gas for fear of foreign intervention.

Alexei Pushkov, pro-Kremlin chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said: “In London, they are ‘convinced’ that Assad used chemical weapons, and earlier they were ‘convinced’ that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s the same old story.”

‘RANGE OF OPTIONS’

The list of participants in the White House meeting underscored its importance. They included Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser Susan Rice, CIA Director John Brennan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, and Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations.

Aides said Kerry, who is on vacation in Massachusetts, and Hagel both participated remotely.

Asked whether, after that meeting, he was personally convinced chemical weapons had been used in Syria, Hagel said: “We, along with our allies, are continuing to assess the intelligence, and the specifics of that intelligence, on the use chemical weapons.

“I wouldn’t go any further than that until we have more intelligence, based on facts,” he said.

Administration officials were cautious in describing the content of the discussions and warned against expectations of a decision on Saturday.

“We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria,” a White House official said before the meeting.

“Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” a White House official said.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean to four destroyers from three.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighed in on the issue for the first time, saying chemical weapons had killed people in Syria, its ally. Although Rouhani stopped short of saying who he thought had used the weapons, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said evidence pointed to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. Central Command and the Jordanian armed forces were planning to host a meeting of regional defense chiefs from Sunday to Tuesday in Jordan. The group will discuss “the region’s dynamic security environment.” The meeting was scheduled in June and not called in response to the recent attacks in Syria, a Pentagon spokesman said.