Syria agrees to UN chemical probe
on 26/08/2013 07:37:37
But a senior White House official dismissed the move as "too late to be credible," saying the US has "very little doubt" President Bashar Assad's forces used such weapons.
The hardening of the US position came as calls for military action grow.
In a sign the US may be a step closer to an armed response, naval forces have already been dispatched toward Syria's coastal waters, although President Barack Obama has cautioned against a hasty decision.
With France, Britain, Israel and some US congressmen urging swift military action against Assad's regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the UN team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.
The agreement struck in Damascus calls for UN experts already in the country to begin an investigation today into the suspected chemical attack on rebel-held areas in the capital's eastern suburbs.
Anti-government activists and Doctors Without Borders say that more than 300 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces on Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas.
The government calls the allegations "absolutely baseless".
The suburbs hit in the suspected chemical strike, collectively known as eastern Ghouta, are under the control of rebel fighters, and regime artillery and warplanes have pounded the area for days.
The UN inspectors will have to travel through both government-held and opposition-controlled turf to conduct their probe. Rebels have said they will help facilitate the visit.
Under yesterday's agreement, the Syrian government "affirmed that it will provide the necessary co-operation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In Washington, a senior administration official said the US has "very little doubt" that regime forces used chemical weapons in Wednesday's attack.
The official said the assessment was "based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured" as well as witness accounts and facts gathered by the US intelligence community.
The regime's continuing shelling of the site would have "significantly corrupted" any available evidence of chemical weapons, the official said.
The UN team was in Syria to look into three earlier suspected chemical attacks, with a mandate to determine whether such weapons were used, not who was responsible for unleashing them.
There was no indication that the mission's brief had been expanded to assess who was behind Wednesday's attack.
The US has about a dozen F-16 jets, a Patriot missile battery and as many as 1,000 American troops in Jordan, which all could also be used in any military action.
US administration and defence officials in recent days have said the most likely military move would be the launch of Tomahawk missiles off ships in the Mediterranean.
Russia, a close ally of the Assad regime, welcomed Syria's decision to allow a UN probe, and said the US should await the findings and realise that a unilateral use of force would be a mistake.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Washington and European partners should not take a "gamble" that could have "catastrophic consequences" for Syria and the region as a whole.