'Growing evidence' of chemical weapons use in Syria - UK


The footage of an alleged chemical weapon attack was posted on YouTube

There is "limited but growing" evidence that Syrian government troops have used chemical weapons, UK Prime Minister David Cameron says.

"It is extremely serious, this is a war crime," Mr Cameron told the BBC.

On Thursday, the White House said that US intelligence agencies believed "with varying degrees of confidence" that Syria had used the nerve agent sarin on a "small scale".

Syrian officials have denounced the allegations as "lies".

Opposition activists and state media meanwhile report fierce fighting between government troops and rebels in a number of suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

'Tested positive'

Mr Cameron said he agreed with the White House's warning that chemical weapons use would be a "red line" for possible intervention.

However, the US has said that this latest intelligence does not represent proof of chemical weapons use.

David Cameron: "It is extremely serious, this is a war crime"

The White House's assessment was made in letters to lawmakers on Thursday signed by Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs.

"Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin," one of the letters said.

No details were given of where or when sarin had been used.

The letter added: "Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient - only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making."

The phrase "varying degrees of confidence" is normally used to reflect differences in opinion within the intelligence community.

Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the use of sarin "violates every convention of warfare".

Already US Republicans are saying the red lines have been crossed, that the Assad regime will feel emboldened if there is not action, that the investigation must not be outsourced to the United Nations.

It is clear President Obama doesn't want to go to war in Syria. He regards it as too complex, too difficult, too uncertain.

American military action there would have a huge impact on the perception of America in the region - confirming every image he wants to change.

Yet the US is, perhaps, moving slowly and cautiously toward taking action. There is no sense of a time scale and no real certainty about what might be done.

This is very Obama: the caution, the desire to bring allies along, the reluctance to rush to judgment.

The UK Foreign Office echoed the US claims, saying it had "limited but persuasive information from various sources" of chemical weapons use in Syria.

It is understood that Britain obtained samples from inside Syria that have been tested by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire.

"Material from inside Syria tested positive for sarin," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

On Friday, Syrian official Sharif Shehadeh told the Associated Press the US allegations were "lies", saying that similar US accusations about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction had proved untrue.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad also dismissed the accusations in an earlier interview with Reuters,

Syria is believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons and there has been heightened concern among the international community in recent months about the safety of the stockpiles.

Although there have been numerous accusations, there has so far not been any confirmation that chemical weapons have been used during Syria's two-year-old conflict.

Anthony Loyd, a journalist for the Times newspaper, told the BBC about the aftermath of one suspected chemical weapons attack earlier this month in the northern city of Aleppo.

Journalist Anthony Loyd visited the victims in hospital

Video shown to him by doctors treating the affected patients "showed pretty clearly that they had been gassed", Mr Loyd says.

None of the patients appeared to have been hit by shrapnel but were frothing at the mouth, had dilated pupils and several other symptoms suggesting the use of chemical weapons, he added.

BBC world affairs correspondent, Nick Childs, says the use of chemical weapons has long been perceived as especially horrific because they are seen as particularly inhumane and indiscriminate, not least in the wake of public revulsion over their deployment during World War I, which led to efforts to outlaw them.

US President Barack Obama warned in December that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would face "consequences" if he used such weapons.

The letters released on Thursday were sent to powerful US senators John McCain and Carl Levin.

In response, Senator McCain told reporters a "red line has been crossed" and recommended arming the opposition, a step the White House has been reluctant to take.

High-profile Democratic lawmakers also called for action to help secure Syria's stockpile of chemical arms and increase aid to the opposition, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone.

What is Sarin?

  • One of a group of nerve gas agents invented by German scientists as part of Hitler's preparations for World War II
  • Huge secret stockpiles built up by superpowers during Cold War
  • 20 times more deadly than cyanide: A drop the size of a pin-head can kill a person
  • Called "the poor man's atomic bomb" due to large number of people that can be killed by a small amount
  • Kills by crippling the nervous system through blocking the action of an enzyme that removes acetylcholine - a chemical that transmits signals down the nervous system
  • Can only be manufactured in a laboratory, but does not require very sophisticated equipment
  • Very dangerous to manufacture. Contains four main ingredients, including phosphorus trichloride

On Friday Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Elkin hinted that the US should consider military action to "take control" of Syria's chemical weapons.

"It is clear that if the United States wants to and the international community wants to, they could act - inter alia, militarily... And then all the fears... will not be relevant," Mr Elkin told Israeli radio.

Mr Cameron said he was "keen for us to do more" in helping opposition forces in Syria.

"We want our allies and partners to do more with us to shape that opposition to make sure we're supporting people with good motives," he said.

Meanwhile, opposition activists reported fierce fighting in the Barzeh district of northern Damascus on Friday, saying that the army and pro-government militiamen had pushed into the area backed by tank fire.

The state-run Sana news agency said troops had killed a number of rebels in fighting in the Jobar and Zamalka districts of the capital.

According to the UN, at least 70,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict.

Syria's government and rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons. A UN team is trying to enter Syria to investigate.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Yawn. Translation: the UK and US just decided it worthwhile to get a foothold in the region. Is this "growing evidence" of chemical weapons as compelling as the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq? They're going to do what they want in there anyway, the hypocrisy should just stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    @47 'Some days ago USA annouced that it was increasing the support for the rebels despite they announced their allegiance to Al-Qaeda a week or so ago.'

    No, you are wrong. The rebels in Syria, unlike in Libya for example, are made up of many different bands and groups. Only one of these announced their support of al-Qaeda and they were already recognised in the west as a terrorist organisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Freedom (56)
    If children and people in Syria were such a concern to our western leaders then why haven't we gone to war already with nothing to do with WMDs. I do not like the civil war in Syria, but it is just that - an internal civil war. If the UK people decided to overthrow the government for being corrupt should all other nations intervene - No.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    16. Lumi-Mies

    "Blah Blah Blah Tungsten bombs"

    There is no such thing as a Tungsten bomb.

    What are you talking about?

  • Comment number 66.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Arming the rebels is the absolute worst thing The West could do. If we want to stop this we need to use our own forces to do it.

    I think we should demand Assad step down and allow us to organise a new government that represents each of the opposing groups within the country. If he refuses we should launch a ground attack so we can target only the opposing forces and minimise civilian casualties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Looks like it's 'Time To Do The Right Thing' i.e. fly in the face of public opinion and start another war that no one wants. The stars are aligning on this one - the war's not going the way the West wants, flimsy evidence of Chemical Weapons, an impending General Election, and an economy that's circling the drain.

    Stuff it, what's the point of a vote when the Govt won't listen?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    But who is using the chemicals - the regime or those suicidal and murderous nutters (and no that not all Islamic people are nutters, but some certainly are)? Certainly we know that al-queda is operating on the rebel side, we also know they are more than capable of blowing themselves up and murdering innocents. Why not create a move against the regime by sacrificing a few?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    When you've got Suicide Bombers and Jihadists amoungst your ranks, does anyone actually think it's not within their remit to use these weapons on their own civillians just to push a Political adgenda?All of this 'tree hugging' by the liberal left is laughable, just go on Holiday to Somalia for a week, and 'IF' you come back, then we'll talk about this ficticious and Nieve 'Milk Of Human Kindness'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    >Sounds a lot like Iraq WMDs 2003

    There's quite a difference. In 2003 Bush was looking for a justification to invade, this time Obama is trying to find some sort of excuse not to intervene.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Who cares?

    Why do we need to get involved?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Anyone thinking this is like the build up to the gulf war is just plain wrong.

    Here we have politicians (esp. Obama) trying to weasel out of confrontation at every turn, where a decade ago we had Bush and Blair find any excuse they could to go after Saddam. Very, very different.

    I'm not saying we should go in to Syria, but it's really not the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Why did we invade Iraq again? OH YES WMD's! but oh there wasnt any!

    Syrias rebels are a bunch of terrorists masquerading as freedom fighters. With the west backing them this has escalated out of control for both sides. How about we have a rebel force take the UK and remove those idiots deciding we should stick our noses in again.

    I dont support terrorists no matter who theyre fighting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    As a country we're broke. Our armed forces have been trimmed to the bone. We simply can't afford intervention in another foreign war! Wise up Mr Hague & co..... or pay for it at the ballot box!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Yes, Nick, it will kill your boys and girls, and many more boys and girls in Syria. Check out the stat from the WHO, whose surveys on 20,000 Iraqi children tell us that 70% of schoold children have psychological disorders to serious mental problems. Deaths? Estimated to 150,000 - 1,200,000. How many generations are screwed up? Is it a genocide or spreading democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    We ( British, French,etc) have previously meddled in Syria,creating undemocratic imbalances of power.
    There's no doubt that there's atrocities being committed, quite possibly on both sides.
    There's no clear cut, "good" or "bad" guys as we in the West see it- Afghanistan is a good example of that.
    More innocents will suffer,but the West is not the policeman of the World, so let's stay out of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Blatant propaganda dutifully reported by the media. Nobody in the media is questioning the fact that the 'rebels' (western backed Islamic extremists) claim to have chemical weapons. It couldn't possibly be them?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    considering the power of thesse "chemical weapons", knowing the mental state of assad, surely he would have used a huge amount of these by now, he certainly is mad enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @ 8 .. tear gas does not cause foaming at the mouth, I've been subjected to concentrated tear gas in a gas chamber in the British Army many times and never once did I or any of the other soldiers EVER foam at the mouth the victim however does show signs of classic nerve agent poisoning, proven by the fact they responded to atropine, atropine if given without nerve agent poisoning can equally kill

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    We are not perfect but at least we try do do the right thing
    I think you're very naive. We've armed terrorist groups, given dictators weapons to crush their citizens, invaded nations based on lies, the US is also guilty of torture, detention without trial, drone strikes on foreign land without any evidence. Our governments are certainly not the "good guys" in the eyes of many


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