UN inspectors leave Syria as US weighs 'limited act'


Barack Obama: "We're not considering any boots on the ground approach"

UN inspectors investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria have left Damascus.

They crossed into neighbouring Lebanon just hours after President Barack Obama said the US was considering a "limited narrow act" against Syria.

Citing a US intelligence assessment, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Syria of using chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including 426 children.

Syria said the US claim was "full of lies", blaming rebels for the attacks.

The UN inspectors - investigating what happened in the Damascus suburbs on 21 August - left their hotel in the Syrian capital in a convoy of vehicles on Saturday morning and later arrived in Lebanon.

During their visit, they carried out four days of inspections.

It could be two weeks before their final report is ready, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has told diplomats.


The departure of the United Nations weapons inspectors from Syria removes both a practical and a political obstacle to the launch of American-led military action.

Any attack that might have placed them in danger was unthinkable and would have seemed premature before their work on the ground was complete.

Their task isn't over now that their convoy has crossed the Lebanese border - they still have samples to analyse and reports to prepare. But it's been clear all along that American planning has been based on its own independent intelligence.

Syrians living near military installations thought likely to be attacked are continuing to lay in extra supplies of food - or to move their families to safety where they can.

Everyone appears to believe an attack will go ahead, not least because America has to demonstrate the credibility of the red line which it has said the use of chemical weapons would represent.

Their departure from Syria removes both a practical and a political obstacle to the launch of American-led military action, the BBC's Kevin Connolly in Beirut reports.

Any attack that might have placed them in danger was unthinkable and would have seemed premature before their work on the ground was complete, our correspondent adds.

Russia - a key ally of Syria - has warned that "any unilateral military action bypassing the UN Security Council" would be a "direct violation of international law".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his country will defend itself against any Western "aggression". French President Francois Hollande has reaffirmed his support for the US stance.

World's 'obligation'

Speaking on Friday, President Obama said the alleged attack in Damascus' suburbs on 21 August was "a challenge to the world" that threatened America's "national security interests".

"We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.

"The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons."

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner examines what we know about the Syria attack on 21 August

But the US leader stressed that Washington was "looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act", and there would be "no boots on the ground" or "long-term campaign".

Mr Obama comments came shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry laid out a raft of what Washington said was a "high confidence" intelligence assessment about the attack.

The main findings of the released unclassified summary state that:

  • the attack killed 1,429 people, including 426 children
  • Syrian military chemical weapons personnel were operating in the area in the three days before the attack
  • Satellite evidence shows rockets launched from government-held areas 90 minutes before first report of chemical attack
  • 100 videos attributed to the attack show symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agent
  • Communications were intercepted involving a senior Damascus official who "confirmed chemical weapons were used" and was concerned about UN inspectors obtaining evidence

The US said its assessment was backed by accounts from medical personnel, witnesses, journalists, videos and thousands of social media reports.

Mr Kerry said the US already had the facts, and nothing that the UN inspectors found could tell the world anything new.

He also described Mr Assad as "a thug and a murderer".

US Secretary of State John Kerry did far more than set out a moral case for military action.

What he did was make it impossible for President Barack Obama to back away from it. He said if the US didn't act, history would judge them harshly.

If they turned a blind eye, it would embolden dictators in Iran and North Korea and leave the US without credibility in the world.

Mr Obama has made similar points himself. It is not the first time Kerry has made the case. But these were the strongest words yet.

When Mr Obama spoke he sounded pretty downbeat by comparison, although he too pointed firmly towards some form of action.

But he was keen to stress that any action would be limited, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, and would not involve boots on the ground.

There are increasing mutterings from Congress, asking him how certain he is of that.

In response, Syria's state-run news agency Sana said Mr Kerry was using "material based on old stories which were published by terrorists over a week ago".

'Strong message'

The UN Security Council is unlikely to approve any military intervention because of opposition from Russia - one of the five permanent members.

Moscow, along with China, has vetoed two previous draft resolutions on Syria.

The US was also dealt a blow on Thursday when the UK parliament rejected a motion supporting the principle of military intervention.

The vote rules the UK out of any potential military alliance.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Mr Obama spoke over the telephone on Friday, agreeing to continue to co-operate on international issues.

The president told Mr Cameron he "fully respected" the approach taken by the UK government.

US officials said they would continue to push for a coalition, and France said it was ready to take action in Syria alongside the US.

Mr Obama and French President Francois Hollande discussed the issue in a telephone conversation on Friday, Paris said.

It said that both leaders wanted to send Damascus a "strong message" to condemn the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Neither France nor the US needs parliamentary approval for military action.

Another US ally, Turkey, called for action similar to the Nato bombing raids in the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

Nato carried out 70 days of air strikes to protect civilians from attack in Kosovo, despite not having a UN resolution.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said that any military intervention should be aimed at toppling Mr Assad.

Sarin stockpile

The use of chemical weapons is banned under several treaties, and considered illegal under customary international humanitarian law.

The Syrian army is known to have stockpiles of sarin and other chemical agents.

Earlier accounts of the attack in Damascus quoted officials from medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres as saying 355 people had been killed.

The UN inspectors have collected various samples that will now be examined in laboratories across the world.

The UN team is not mandated to apportion blame for the attacks.

More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011, and the conflict has produced at least 1.7 million refugees.

Syria map

Forces which could be used against Syria:

Four US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan - are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations

Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes

Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean

French Raffale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE


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  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Personally, I support limited military action 100%, regardless of whether or not the US has approval from the UN Security Council. This conflict has been going on for almost 2 &1/2 years and no one has done a thing about it except talk. Now, chemical weapons are being used and children are meeting horrible deaths as a result. What are we supposed to do, wait until someone starts using nukes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Why is England involved? Do u want a 3rd World War? Is this said woman married to a Syrian of English nationality, or like said cousin Sir Charles & said Princess Anne, Dutch? She looks Dutch!?! I am not Dutch. Nor, do I want a 3rd World War. If England engages in a war with Syria there will be bombings in England, Scotland & Ireland. R u up to this Charles? Let the Syrians fite their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Smart move giving congress a vote. Hopefully by then the UN inspectors will have been able to share their findings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    (remove blanks)

    UN official tells swiss tv, rebels did it not Assad

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Pres Obama,is following our "UK" route of asking for a vote before taking action,it seems we have not got it wrong by our method.All I wish for is that the ACTUAL perpetrators to get hit,with out the futile practice of using western young service personnel as easy targets.AS is now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    124 Banana

    I hope they take his Nobel Peace Prize back

    Extract from Obama speech 2009:

    “creating a new climate of...multilateral diplomacy...an emphasis on the role of the United Nations...of dialogue and negotiations as instruments for resolving international conflicts...and a vision of world free of nuclear arms.”

    What a laugh. Power corrupts

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Obama has just said on TV that he will take military action. God help us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    If Mr Obama's friend is so concerned that a chemical weapon indiscriminately attacks women, then he should be infinitely more concerned that a rape weapon has been used by the masses discriminately against women and children this year in numerous countries, and that those victims now slowly die for the rest of their lives crippled with ignorant nasty stigmatization and austracisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    129 Freeman

    John Kerry's speech extract:

    "I went back and I watched the videos, the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time"

    This man is asking the world to justify attacking people on the "evidence'" of some videos on youtube!


  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Why is this NOT making the headlines?
    Elementary. Because i'ts an unsubstantied laughable claim by a shady extreme leftist rag.
    The UN have already reported that the "rebels" / terrorists have used chemical weapons on 14 separate occasions in Syria, or are they also just some leftist rag?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    113: Dale Gavlak is an Associated Press journalist who has at least a half dozen articles here on the BBC. Certainly more of a credible source than Marcus Draftdodger. This may be complete tosh but the story needs looking at. Perhaps Congress could ask him along? Assuming El Presidente decides not to flagrantly ignore the Constitution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Two American workmen are arguing about this across from my window at this minute. One keeps repeating "what about the children?" The other keeps repeating, "not another war, not another mistake!" They seem quite heated. While such a limited sample is not evidence, I would caution Pres. Obama that American opinion is very divided as well as that of the UK.
    @36 Only idiots listen to FOX

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    You will hear (and see) pres. Obama's opinion on Syrian crisis on CNN at 7:15 PM European Central Time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    115"How is it our job to try and solve a civil war"

    It isn't.You don't get it.If use of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons becomes an accepted norm civilization as we know it will come to an end.To prevent that it must be demonstrated now that those associated with their use will die and their cause obliterated.Assad's regime should be destroyed now.Obama is dithering.He's no Truman

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    The circumstantial evidence that's already been released to the public in the US is compelling beyond reasonable doubt.Defendants have been convicted of murder on less compelling circumstantial evidence. Where later evidence determined their guilt with no room for doubt they were proven guilty with only the rarest of exceptions.This one is good enough for Obama, Congress, and most Americans.GUILTY

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    How is it our job to try and solve a civil war in another country. these Muslim countries only want us there when they are slaughtering each other any other time we are not welcome.

    We need to sort this country out first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    110.margaret howard

    Why is this NOT making the headlines?

    Elementary. Because i'ts an unsubstantied laughable claim by a shady extreme leftist rag.

    And that's why no reputable news organization would promulgate it.

    You'd be better off quoting The Morning Star, L'Humanite or Izvestya.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    110 Where did you read that Margaret, Pravda or Isvestia? Or did you hear it on The Voice of Russia radio station? Russians are excellent fiction writers. There was Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and now its replacement in Putzkyland.

    "Why is this NOT making the headlines?"

    In the west? Because it's an obvious lie and it makes no sense anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Re 107.sieuarlu
    It doesn't matter how many times you point out to US haters that defoliants or incendiaries are NOT chemical weapons.

    It doesn't matter how many times you point out to them that US has never armed Taliban or shipped CWs to Saddam.

    Or how many times you point out that it was NORTH Korea which attacked the South, and JAPAN which attacked US.

    US haters don't care at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Syrian retaliation may take the form of cyber warfare.This is where the DOD has been spending a lot of effort.I expect it could confuse or shut down all Syrian communications systems in any way tied to open networks, possibly some closed networks.

    Will Hezbollah sleeper cells in the US commit terrorist attacks? If they do all bets are off. Anything is possible including nuclear war.


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