UN hears Syria gas attack verdict
on 16/09/2013 07:31:03
Secretary general Ban Ki-moon will brief a closed session of the UN Security Council on its contents today, and later the 193-member General Assembly.
The inspection team led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom was mandated to report on whether chemical weapons were used in the August 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs and, if so, which chemical agents were used - but not on who was responsible.
Mr Ban said on Friday that he believes there would be "an overwhelming report" that chemical weapons were used in the attack.
Meanwhile a Syrian minister called the US-Russian agreement on securing the country's chemical weapons a "victory" for President Bashar Assad's regime, but America warned "the threat of force is real" if Damascus failed to carry out the plan.
The comments by minister of national reconciliation Ali Haidar to a Russian state news agency were the first by a senior Syrian government official on the deal struck in Geneva. Under the agreement, Syria will provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal within one week and hand over all of the components of its programme by mid-2014.
"We welcome these agreements," Mr Haidar was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti agency. "On the one hand, they will help Syrians get out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they averted a war against Syria by removing the pretext for those who wanted to unleash one.
"These agreements are a credit to Russian diplomacy and the Russian leadership. This is a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends."
There has been no official statement from the Syrian government and it was not clear whether Mr Haidar's comments reflected Assad's thinking.
The deal, thrashed out in marathon negotiations between US and Russian diplomats, averts American missile strikes against the Assad regime, although the Obama administration has warned that the military option remains on the table if Damascus does not comply.
President Barack Obama said last week the US Navy would maintain its increased presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to keep pressure on Syria and to be in position to respond if diplomacy failed.
"The threat of force is real, and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal," US secretary of state John Kerry said in Jerusalem, where he briefed Israeli leaders on the agreement.
He also said the agreement, if successful, "will have set a marker for the standard of behaviour with respect to Iran and with respect North Korea and any rogue state, (or) group that tries to reach for these kind of weapons".
French president Francois Hollande said in a televised address that he had not ruled out the "military option" either. Otherwise, he said, "there will be no pressure".
The US accuses the Assad government of using poison gas against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21, killing more than 1,400 people, but other death toll estimates are far lower. Syria denies launching the attack and blames the rebels.
The suspected chemical attack raised the prospect of US-led military action against Syria that the rebels hoped would tip the civil war in their favour. But as the strikes appeared imminent, key US ally Britain voted against military action and Mr Obama decided to ask the US Congress for authorisation first, delaying an armed response.
Russia then floated the idea of Syria relinquishing its chemical arsenal to avert Western strikes and the Assad regime quickly agreed. On Saturday, Moscow and Washington struck a framework agreement to secure and destroy Syria's chemical stockpile.
The US-Russian agreement has won broad backing around the world, including China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. France also welcomed the deal, but foreign minister Laurent Fabius warned during a visit in Beijing that it was only the "first stage".
In Cairo, the Arab League also supported the agreement.
"All parties are capable and influential enough to do their part in the UN Security Council to ensure a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria ... and to move towards negotiations in Geneva to achieve a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis," secretary general Nabil Elaraby said.
The deal was greeted with cautious optimism in Israel, where leaders expressed satisfaction that Syria, a bitter enemy, could be stripped of dangerous weapons but also pessimism about whether Assad will comply.
Standing next to Mr Kerry in Jerusalem, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed his belief that the Geneva agreement would have deep repercussions for Iran, Syria's close ally.
"The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don't have weapons of mass destruction, because as we have learned in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them," he said.
"The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron, Iran."
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group has called for a ban on the use of ballistic missiles and air power by Assad's forces in addition to the prohibition on chemical weapons.
"Chemical weapons attacks are a part of a bigger scheme of crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime, including using the Syrian air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas," the Syrian National Coalition said on its official website.