'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 410.

    I'm sure the writers at the BBC have little power to be fair and honest, their hands are tied by a force that comes from the top.

    It's very disturbing to see the propaganda about Syria and Assad every month, just as it is to see the one-sided MMR story, without looking into the real dangers of vaccines.

    We come to the BBC only to check the latest propaganda, then go elsewhere for the real story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    @388. thrill_vermilion
    But this government is too left wing... won't tackle the over sized state, won't tackle the benefits bill, won't tackle the elf and safety culture, won't do anything of any use at all - in fact hasn't even tackled the deficit never mind the debt. Its a failure. Of course it has protected the rich. Indeed it is difficult to see where it is not the same as Blair/Brown

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    Quick start the humanitarian bombing campaign immediately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    I wish nations would fight rebels on a fair and even keel, by using depleted uranium (a weapon and a chemical) tank shells with a half life of 75,000 years. All warfare is wrong, whether it's a gas or a bomb, human suffering is just that. Oh, and the rebels are not rebels, they are terrorists by any other countries definition. And they are linked to Al-Qaeda. But an unstable Syria suits the US...

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    I would be interested to know who the "American medical team who turned up within hours of the victims being admitted to hospital" were, what samples they took and where they sent them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    BBC - you are alienating your readers by believing we are stupid. It is shameful that you don't give balanced and informative accounts of (all) world news. I say we all refuse to pay license fees until the news department and its relationship with the establishment is severed! You have just crossed a line too

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    Germany started WW1.
    Germany started WW2.
    Germany is the bookies favourite to start WW3.

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    Statements like this are made for political reasons, because they want to justify a proactive role they want ot play.

    Were there chemical weapons, maybe, maybe not. That's irrelevant really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    West is attempting to repeat tales of “WMD’s” in Syria, just as it did in Iraq & Libya. Wshington Post: “U.S. intelligence agencies: Assad used chemical weapons ‘on a small scale.” Hagel says intelligence agencies’ assessment was reached with “varying degrees of confidence,” meaning that they lacked proof or overwhelming evidence. Just how tenuous is evidence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    How can we believe anything any more.. Is this propaganda or is this truth?

    Too many lives lost already on both sides - what can the 'World' expect from any intervention now... and what would be left in the wake of any 'action'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    Sounds a lot like Iraq WMDs 2003. Do these politicans really think our memories are this short?!!

    War opponents claimed that Saddam didn't have any WMDs since none were found (I guess he poisoned thousands Kurds with Chanel No 5 in spray).

    Of course they weren't since Saddam paid Hafez Assad to store them for him in Syria where they're used now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    Border guards will need to be vigilant. This popped up for a short while on the bbc uk politics page yesterday "A "substantial number" of British citizens are fighting with extremist groups in Syria, William Hague has warned" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22284670 & US training rebels in Jordan http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22285555 just how deeply involved are we really?

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    Is this the same calibre of growing evidence that saw us in Iraq for the Weapons of Mass Destruction - or yet another fabrication by our brought politicians

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    363. teddy555
    Your going to have a bad time with both I agree. But a bullet at least, usually kills who you aimed it at. Which should be another combatant. Gas once its out will kill/maim whoever is around and has no capacity to discriminate.

    That is why they are classified differently under IHL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    BBC only doing their job. That is to present Bush/Wolfowitz/Cheney Plan for regime change (first circulated in early 90s). First Afghanistan and Iraq. Now Syria. This will then corner Iran on all sides and they will be next. BBC only presenting the propoganda that all state networks have to do on behalf of their Government. Whether you or agree or not that is what it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    I find it hard to believe that the Syrian Government would risk a war with NATO over chemical weapon use....the 'rebels' on the other hand would benefit quite nicely from a bit of air-support...

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    2 weeks ago, the Syrian Gov't claimed the rebels had used chem weapons. Last week Baronness T was given a £4M cremation. Mark T is an arms dealer, and part of the Cameron Big Society inner clique. This week US claims Assad used chem weapons (in the same place and at the same time as the original claims). There many other back-scratching disparate facts that can be joined together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Unfortunately, staying clear of troubled countries is not always an option, as history has shown. A policy of appeasement in the 1930's allowed Hitler to invade Austria, Slovakia and Bohemia completely unopposed.
    Civil unrest is one thing, but if Assad is committing war crimes against his own people, he must be stopped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    361. spam spam spam spam

    Are you comparing background pollution in cities with the effects of nerve gas? As a device to make the problem seem less serious your comment didn't work.


    Are you a 'glass half empty man'? The transition to democracy in North Africa is very positive and welcome. Take note of the comments of the majority living in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Blair, Maggie etc etc Israel this Israel that blah blah blah. The self promoting whinging of the shrill politicals in this thread has completely and utterly nothing to do with what is going on in Syria. It's a Persian V Arab civil war, our own politics are not the issue. If you have nothing constructive to add rather than the blame game then why comment?


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