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Anti-Syria hysteria? US pushes chemical weapons claim

Published time: May 11, 2013 13:18
Edited time: May 15, 2013 18:19
In this image made available by the Syrian News Agency (SANA) on March 19, 2013, people are brought into a hospital in the Khan al-Assal region in the northern Aleppo province, as Syria's government accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time. (AFP/SANA)

In this image made available by the Syrian News Agency (SANA) on March 19, 2013, people are brought into a hospital in the Khan al-Assal region in the northern Aleppo province, as Syria's government accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time. (AFP/SANA)

US Secretary of State John Kerry said there is “strong evidence” proving the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its war against the militant opposition, a position at odds with recent UN findings.

“There is no question in my mind that this fight is about the terrible choices that the Assad regime has made,” Kerry told reporters on Friday, “to use gas, which we believe there is strong evidence for the use of.”

Previously, the United States said it lacked evidence that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for a gas attack against members of the rebel opposition. Kerry’s claims were also unsubstantiated.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also says he has evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons. In a statement on Friday, he said that the so-called "red line" set by US President Barack Obama had been crossed "a long time ago" and called for stronger US action against Assad. Erdogan declined to say when or where such weapons were used.

The accusations come despite a recent statement by leading UN investigator.

"Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals,” Carla Del Ponte told Swiss TV last week. "According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated."  

"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," Del Ponte continued, though she gave no indication yet of where and when the nerve agent was used.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, of which Del Ponte is a leading panelist, was created in August 2011 to investigate alleged human rights violations in the Syrian crisis. It is due to issue its full report next month.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

As both sides in the Syrian conflict accuse the other of resorting to chemical weapons, Russia has worked with Western partners to lay opening groundwork for peace talks.

President Vladimir Putin met with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday in the Russian resort town of Sochi, the site of next year’s Olympic Games, where the two leaders discussed options for peacefully resolving the Syrian conflict.

Putin emphasized that Moscow and London have a “common interest in a speedy end to the violence, the launch of a peace process and the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Cameron agreed that Russia and the UK have mutual goals, which are to “end the conflict, to stop Syria fragmenting, to let the Syrian people choose who governs them and to prevent the growth of violent extremism.”  

Beyond agreeing that a peaceful settlement must be reached between the Syrian government and the rebel opposition, however, Russia and the West remain divided by their actions.

The UK and the United States are pushing for Assad to step down, and demand that the Syrian arms embargo be lifted in order to supply weapons to the country’s rebels; the Al-Nusra Front, a terrorist group aligned with Al-Qaeda, is among their ranks.

Anti-Syria hysteria?

Amid the contradictory reports emerging from Syria, Russia warned earlier in the week that global public opinion is being prepared for a possible military intervention in the Syrian crisis.

“Moscow is concerned by signs of preparing public opinion in the world to the possibility of intervention using force into the lingering internal conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich said in a statement.

“We are calling for a halt to the politicizing of this exceptionally serious issue and the inflating of the anti-Syrian atmosphere,” he emphasized.

Russia warned that the intensification of armed conflict would sharply increase the risks that new hotbeds of tension would appear not only in Syria, but also in Lebanon and in the relatively calm region around the Israel-Lebanon border.

In this image made available by the Syrian News Agency (SANA) on March 19, 2013, medics and other masked people attend to a man at a hospital in Khan al-Assal in the northern Aleppo province, as Syria's government accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time. (AFP/SANA)

Lukashevich also pointed to two airstrikes conducted by the Israeli Air Force on May 3 and 5 against targets near Damascus. Although Israel did not claim responsibility for the attacks, military analysts believe Israel initiated the attack to intercept an alleged weapons shipment heading for Hezbollah from Iran.

Meanwhile, Moscow has been pushing for an international conference aimed at bringing Syrian government and opposition envoys together for negotiations.

Kerry and Lavrov had announced on Tuesday that Washington and Moscow would seek to organize a conference on Syria, expressing hope it could be held this month.

However, concerns have emerged the conference may take place later than initially expected.

"By the end of May is impossible," a Russian official present at Friday talks between President Putin and UK PM Cameron, told reporters on condition of anonymity, adding the parties to the proposed conference are too divided on their expectations.

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