'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 330.

    ''Growing evidence' of chemical weapons use in Syria - UK' - This means that the US told the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    If this evidence comes from CIA it could be as reliable as the 'evidence' of WMD used to 'justify' the illegal (in some peoples' view) war against Sadam and Iraq. If there is evidence there should be images and witness statements from witnesses of unimpeachable character. In my view that would not include the CIA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    David - stop trying to drag us into another illegal war, under dubious pretence. WMD have not been found, the USA is trying to pull us into a conflict that is nothing to do with them or us. WW3 could well be a result of this, and attacking Syria (because of Israel) will put, again,our young soldiers into danger.
    PS 310.Popojo go and emigrate - this is nothing like WW2 - read your history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    #312 Remember how many people survived the Tokyo subway sarin attacks? A pin head of Sarin is enough to kill if you stick your hand out and have it dropped direct onto your skin. In real life the gas is lighter than air so you have to fire tons of it to make it an effective battlefield weapon.

    These victims were probably inside a building and WOULD have received a sub-lethal dose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    The Western press has zero credibility on these matters

    "WMD can be deployed in 40 minutes by Saddam Hussein"

    After our invasion the reality was that WMD never existed in the first place !
    They gave up searching in 2005

    There's lies, damn lies, and WMD lies

    We're watching you BBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    As serious as the use of chemical weapons is the question remains as to why the UK should get involved. Cameron and others have been going on about our defecit for the last four years - joining another lenghty and pointless war is a certain way of making it worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    If this is a conspiracy, they did a pretty impressive job of making look real. All the hospital staff would have had to be in on it. The actors would have had to wear special contact lenses to dilate their pupils. They would have had to continually keep up the pretence for a long time to fool the reporter on the ground.

    I also hear the moon landings were faked and that Elvis is alive and well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    I fully agree with the reluctance to get out troops involved.
    If the US/UK invade Syria to overthrown Assad and the Rebels take control of the country a la Libya, the stockpiles of Chemical Weapons will be in the hands of the rebel/terrorist opposition like Al-Nusra.

    Al-Qaeda affiliates with chemical weapons. What could possibly go wrong....

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    For those who have often wondered whether the world would be a better place with anarchy , this is what happens. The country is embroiled in a bitter civil war, there is no good or bad, merely death. Assad is a secular leader, whether a despot or not. The so called opposition is mainly run by religious zealots . So despot on one side, zealots on the other and in the middle civilians dying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    What timing!
    Last couple of weeks have witnessed Syrian Army victories. The so-called “Free Syrian Army” has been demolished near Damascus; govt forces have restored order in parts of Homs as well as Lebanese-Syrian border. The west is running out of time, desperately seeking an excuse to rescue their anaemic proxy war. So - here comes the “humanitarian” pretext.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    @257 said

    "BBC report:
    A Syrian minister said rebels used chemical weapons in Aleppo

    The 'chemical weapons monitoring body' & the US denied it saying there was NO EVIDENCE. Now, the US and UK say it did happen. However, they conveniently changed the perpetrator from rebels to Assad."


    Convenience politics that will cost lives

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    272. thomas99
    “People do not lie just for the sake of it”.

    Oh I don’t know, remember the former vicar Tony Blair?
    Politicians do it all the time & that’s why we don’t believe them anymore, at least not without some solid supporting evidence & that’s rather short at the moment.
    The UK wants Assad out at all costs & is looking for whatever excuse they can find to push their agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    Time to stay out IMO. Every country we've been involved with during this 'Arab Spring' has been pretty disasterous (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt? Bastions of Democracy in Africa? *Cough*).

    We have our own problems to deal with, and honestly, we know next to nothing about the rebels fighting against Assad except what history tells us...

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    This country has failed. One look through the comments tells me this: the hate, the distrust, the aggeressively structured views with no factual grounding or knowledge the world is a "grey" place.
    I thought this country was worth more than this, clearly I was wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Here we go again!
    Remember Sadam's weapons of mass destruction? The reason we were told that we had to go to war with Iraq!
    Are we now being brainwashed to invade Syria and turn it into the chaos that is now Iraq.
    If an Islamic revolution started in the USA and the UK, would Obama and Cameron try to crush it, of course they would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Not sure what the difference is between shooting or blowing up people and poisoning them, the end result is the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    Firstly we should not even get involved, but now that we have, we seem to be backing the future terrorists of syria. It sure does look like chemical weapons have been used, but there is no way of knowing who used them, certainly the rebels would, without doubt, use them and then try to blame the government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    The only people I've seen making threats to use chemical weapons in Syria are the US-backed, al-Quaeda-affiliated opposition. A cursory search on YouTube shows over a dozen videos of them threatening to use & actually demonstrating use of chemical weapons on animals.

    Why no mention of it on the BBC & why are the US & UK governments not considering the possibility that the opp. were behind this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    The BBC describes victims "foaming at the mouth, but recovering rapidly after atropine" -consistent with raised acetylcholine in salivary glands after AChE inhibitor Sarin, blocked by anti-muscarinic atropine. However, Sarin also kills because hyper-excitation of neuromuscular nicotinic receptors paralyses breathing. The dose must have been low. Better evidence needed. Could be put-up job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    Still cannot get out of my head the very wise words of the Israeli P.M.
    Quote : and I assure you that after the Arab Spring will come a deep winter of Islamic Terrorists. I was also shocked to find out from my Spanish friends that may Muslim's think half of Spain is '' Muslim Land'' and that Jehadist's consider it Muslim Land Occupied by Infidels ! Syria/Cyprus/Spain getting close isn't it. Wille


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