The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.
“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.
“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.
The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.
The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.
The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.
“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”
Rep. Engel (D-NY) thanked Dempsey for his candor, but said he remains deeply unsatisfied with the U.S. policy on Syria.
“I reject the notion that our involvement in Syria would simply constitute ‘choosing sides’ between one armed group and another,” Engel said in a statement Wednesday. “Our involvement represents a choice between hastening the end of the Assad regime or continuing to allow the cycle of violence, displacement, and terror to continue unabated.”
The State Department said Wednesday that Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will meet her Russian counterpart in the Hague next week to continue discussions on a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed the latest Syria chemical weapons claims, as well as Egypt and Iran, in a phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon Wednesday, the Pentagon said.
(Photo: Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region near Damascus on Wednesday. Bassam Khabieh / Reuters.)