P5+1 consider strategy for meeting new Iran team in NY

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New Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in New York on September 23, US and Iranian diplomats told Al-Monitor.

Western officials hope the two lead negotiators will be able to agree at the meeting on a new date and venue for resumed P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program.

Meantime, the foreign ministers from the P5+1—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia—are due to meet on Iran in New York, possibly on September 26th, a western official, speaking not attribution, said Thursday. (The State Department said it did not yet have a confirmed date for that meeting.) Iran is not currently expected to attend the meeting, but one source left open the possibility that could potentially change, depending on what Zarif and Ashton decide.

While Zarif is also expected to separately meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, no meeting with the U.S. has been planned, he told Iran’s Press TV in an interview Wednesday.

It’s possible that an impromptu “hallway” meeting could occur between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, but one is not planned, a western source suggested.

The White House has not confirmed but neither denied numerous Iranian reports that President Obama sent new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a letter last month following his inauguration. A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council told the Back Channel that they don’t discuss private correspondence. But current and former US officials indicated to the Back Channel they believe such a letter was sent, via Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who traveled to Iran late last month. Obama is reported to have sent two earlier letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in 2009 and earlier this year.

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Ex IDF intel chief: Plan to remove Syria chemical arms 'important test'

Weeks before John Kerry or Russia's Sergei Lavrov, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin proposed that Russia could force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, as an alternative to US-led military strikes in the wake of the alleged, large-scale nerve gas attack Aug. 21st outside Damascus.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief, told Israel's Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a 'genuine achievement' for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin.

Yadlin, now head of Israel's leading think tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), demurred in an interview Tuesday if he knew the origins of the chemical arms removal plan that he first raised publicly last month, but which US and Russian officials acknowledged only this week that Obama and Putin had previously discussed, including at the G-20 summit last week.

But as head of a think tank trying to come up with 'out of box' ideas to solve complex security problems, the solution made sense, Yadlin told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, given both Washington's reluctance to become deeply enmeshed in Syria's civil war, and because of Putin's influence over Assad.

“When we thought about, since America is not willing to exercise excessive power or a long or decisive campaign against Assad, what will be an outcome that, on the one hand ,will eliminate the future exercise of chemical weapons, and on the other may not…escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional war,” Yadlin said.

“So, we thought that if Assad will be asked by Putin,” he said. “Putin is the key for the deal, because Putin is basically keeping Assad alive.”

“So if [Putin] says to himself, 'OK, I want to avoid an American attack,..and I don’t want to be identified with the chemical attack of Assad, my client, I can really achieve both of these goals by a deal that will end the chemical capabilities of Syria, by…taking [them] out of Syria and destroying” them, Yadlin said.

“And that will give enough diplomatic victory for the [U.S.] president [Obama], that he has done something directly correlated to the crossing of [his] red line,” he continued. “Win win.”

There is, however, “a loser here,” Yadlin said. “The loser is that Assad is not punished for what he has done. And maybe also saying that this allowed him to kill and continue to kill his people with conventional weapons. [But] I think this should be dealt with on another channel.”

The forthcoming United Nations chemical weapons inspector report is not likely to make Russia publicly admit the Syrian regime's alleged complicity in the Aug. 21 attack, Yadlin said.

“The only thing they care about is how to stop the Tomahawks and the B-2s from attacking Syria.” Yadlin said of the Russians.

“That's a very important lesson I think also for the Iranian issue,” he continued. “If you have a credible [threat of a] military attack, it is very likely that it will create a diplomatic solution.”

“If [the US] is serious with military threats, and your enemies and opponents really evaluate and analyze you are going to use it, then the chances you will not have to use it to reach some diplomatic solution is much higher.”

But in Obama projecting a credible threat of military force to punish and deter Syrian chemical weapons use that drove Russia at least to seek a last ditch diplomatic alternative, did the United States not indirectly demonstrate to Iran too its credibility on WMD proliferation?

“This is not enough,” Yadlin said, “especially because of the difficulties in exercising it”–an apparent reference to the political dysfunction and chaos that accompanied Obama's decision to put the decision on Syria strikes to a vote in Congress, which the White House appeared this week to be at risk of losing.

The details of any agreement to secure and remove Syria's chemical weapons also matter enormously, Yadlin said, and are both diplomatically and logistically daunting

“It should be a deal that is not camouflage, not an excuse not to do anything, but a real, performance based and highly legitimate deal,” Yadlin said. “Legitimacy should come from a UN Security Council resolution, which includes chapter 7, the article which says, if the Syrians are not living up to their obligations, force can be used.”

“Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”

Asked about reports Russia had already Tuesday objected to a binding UN security council resolution and Putin saying the US must renounce its threat of force to secure the deal, Yadlin said such conditions would be, in his view, deal breakers. “Ok, if they prefer an American attack.”

“If you don't very much insist that the parameters are well defined, I think at the end of the day there will not be not a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic failure.”

“This will be an important test,” Yadlin said, in international eyes, not just of Russia and Syria, but of Obama.

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Obama, Putin previously discussed plan to secure Syria chemical arms


U.S. and Russian officials confirmed Tuesday that they have had discussions about securing Syria’s chemical arms going back months, including in a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin at the G-20 summit last week, and that the idea was not born out of a stray comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a London press conference Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that he and President Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last week.

He and Obama agreed “to instruct Secretary of State [John Kerry] and Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] to get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward,” Putin told Russia Today in an interview Tuesday.

A US official confirmed this basic account Tuesday.

Obama and Putin, meeting in a corner for 20-30 minutes last Friday (Sept. 5), “agreed that a political solution is ultimately necessary to resolve the civil war, but we continue to have differences about Assad’s role in that transition,” a senior US administration official said Tuesday.  “However, they did agree that we could cooperate on the issue of chemical weapons – specifically, an effort to secure [chemical weapons] stockpiles, as both the US and Russia believe that they pose a significant danger, within Syria and beyond.”

“Putin broached the idea that had been discussed in previous meeting about reaching an international agreement to remove chemical weapons,” the US official said. “Obama agreed that could be an avenue for cooperation, and said that Kerry and Lavrov should follow up on the concept to shape a potential proposal. Putin agreed to relay that to Lavrov.”

Kerry, Lavrov and Putin earlier “spoke about this concept back in the spring, when Kerry first visited Moscow in April – at the time hooked to the notion that all shared an interest in avoiding collapse of the institutions of the state,” the U.S. official said.

In fact, Obama and Putin had discussed the concept at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico last year, and in subsequent meetings, “though agreement could not be reached,” the senior US official said.

Lavrov announced Monday that Russia was calling on Syria's leaders to turn over its chemical weapons to international custody, for subsequent destruction, and to sign the chemical weapons ban. Lavrov noted in his statement that the decision followed a telephone conversation he and Kerry had after Kerry was asked at a London news conference Monday if there is anything Syria could do to avert U.S. military action.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry responded. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Kerry's reference to a diplomatic option was immediately downplayed by State Department spokespeople as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and by another unnamed US official to CNN as a “goof.” But President Obama, in previously scheduled television interviews Monday, indicated that while he was skeptical of the plan, it represents “a potentially positive development,” and he was willing to “run this to the ground” to determine if it was a serious and feasible proposal, and not just a delaying tactic.

In both Kerry's and the “President's mind, it can be a win-win,” the U.S. official said Tuesday. “Either you succeed in coming up with a …means by which it happens quickly and verifiably; or you get to.. show that you exhausted another diplomatic route which adds legitimacy and brings more partners and more in Congress to your side.”

Kerry will meet with Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the option in detail, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Continue reading

Russia urges Syria to surrender chemical arms to avert strikes

In a potentially dramatic turn of events, Russia on Monday announced that it would immediately urge Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control as a way to avert U.S.–led military strikes.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at an emergency press conference in Moscow Monday, following meetings with Syria’s visiting foreign minister Walid al-Moallem.

Lavrov said he had “already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a quick, and, hopefully, positive answer,’” the Associated Press reported.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.

Moallem, speaking from Moscow on Syrian State TV shortly later Monday, said Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. But it was not immediately clear from his reported comments whether “welcoming” the proposal constituted acceptance of it.

“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression,” Moallem was quoted as saying by ITV News.

The surprise turn in developments followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters in London Monday that Syria could avert strikes only if it agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons by next week.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Monday. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.

Kerry's remark–subsequently downplayed by State Department spokespeople as merely “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and characterized by another unnamed U.S. official to CNN as a “goof”–was followed by a telephone conversation between Kerry and Russia’s Lavrov Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Russian proposal emerged just as the White House is ramping up its public outreach as it presses Congress to vote to authorize the President to conduct limited military strikes to deter chemical weapons use in Syria.

President Obama is scheduled to give a half dozen television news interviews on Monday, and to give a prime time address to the nation Tuesday night at 9pm ET.

U.S. officials reacted to the news out of Moscow with skepticism Monday, suggesting it may be a stalling tactic, but promising to give the Russian proposal a “hard” look.

“Any effort to put Assad's chemical weapons under international control would be a positive step,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said at the department press briefing Monday. But we have “serious, deep skepticism.”

It's “even more important” that the United States doesn't take the pressure off Syria now, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. The Russian initiative is  “explicitly in reaction to [the] threat of retaliation” by the United States.

Notably, amid the official expressions of skepticism, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House Monday after a meeting with President Obama, reiterated the conditions under which such a deal might be feasible.

“Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.”

Initial reaction from the Hill ranged from cautious to skeptical—but did not entirely shut off openness to see if the Russian proposal pans out.

“While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said in a statement Monday.

“We shouldn’t get our hopes up too high,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

(Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, left, prior to talks in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press.)

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Kerry: World ‘watching to see if Syria can get away with it’

Syrian chemical weapons personnel under the chain of command of the Syrian Ministry of Defense prepared for three days before Syrian military units, instructed to don gas masks, fired rockets containing nerve gas into opposition-held villages in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st, killing over 1,400 people in the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century, the United States said Friday.

“The primary question is really no longer: What do we know?” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a powerful call to action from the State Department Friday, as the U.S. released a declassified, four-page intelligence assessment on the attack. “The question is: What are…we in the world going to do about it?”

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry warned.

The release of the U.S. intelligence case (map) and Kerry’s call for resolve came after President Obama met again with his national security cabinet Friday morning on Syria, amid daily intensified preparations for almost certain U.S.-led military strikes in Syria in the coming days. But the Obama administration suffered a blow when the British parliament voted early Friday against UK participation in any international Syria action. France, however said Friday, it would participate, and was sending two frigates to the area where the U.S. has already sent five warships.

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President Obama said Friday he was still deliberating and consulting with lawmakers over potential military options. But he expressed wary resolve to conduct “limited” action in Syria that would not, he reiterated, involve boots on the ground, to deter chemical weapons use.

“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said in remarks at the White House Friday, adding that “part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”

Kerry made a far more impassioned case for the necessity of international action to deter not just the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, but regimes around the world which he said are closely “watching” how the United States and others react.

“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” Kerry warned, in what seemed a pointed rebuke of the UK parliamentary vote, which was hailed by Russia Friday. “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”

But Kerry, like Obama, also acknowledged American public weariness about another military intervention in the Middle East, and promised Syria intelligence and intervention would not be “a repeat” of Iraq.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said, urging the public to read it for themselves. ‘We will not repeat that moment.”

The narrative Kerry and other administration and intelligence officials described in briefings Friday suggested that the Syrian regime was frustrated by a protracted fight with opposition-held and contested villages in the Damascus suburbs, and employed the chemical weapons so it could speed up the fight and surge military resources to Aleppo. The Syrian regime has increasingly employed chemical weapons since 2012 as a regular tool in its military arsenal, but never before on this scale, officials said.

“We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so,” Kerry said.

“Unfortunately,.. the regime considers the chemical weapons in its portfolio of military use,” a senior U.S. administration official said in the White House background call Friday. “It is not considered an extraordinary measure. It is not used only in particular cases. In this case, [they] chose to use it in a densely populated area, and it obviously had horrendous effects.”

In total, at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, were killed in the nerve gas attack last week, Kerry said.

In the aftermath of the attack, among other intelligence collected from both secret and open sources, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of a senior regime official referencing the use of chemical weapons, and expressing concern about the UN weapons inspectors detecting it, Kerry and senior U.S. Administration Officials said in a subsequent White House background telephone briefing Friday.

“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said Friday, adding, in a reference US officials later acknowledged was US signals intelligence of the communication, “We know this.”

As the Obama administration ramped up its preparations for likely action, the UN chemical weapons inspectors completed their work in Syria on Friday, and were all due to be out of the country by Saturday morning, the UN said. The UN’s disarmament chief Angela Kane departed Damascus and was en route to New York and will brief Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and then the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council on Saturday, the UN said. The Security Council has remained deadlocked on Syria for over two and a half years due to Russian support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and veto of any prospective measures against his regime.

The UN is due to hold a rare press conference on Saturday, but UN officials said they didn’t expect the inspection team to release its report until all of its lab testing of samples collected in Syria was completed, in what could take several days.

Kerry said Friday the United States would not wait for the UN report because the inspectors’ mandate does not permit it to attribute culpability, the U.S. already has the information it needs, and because the Syrian regime did not grant the inspectors access for five days while they intensified their shelling of the villages in what the U.S. has said was a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence of the chemical attack.

(Photo: President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Obama cabinet briefs Congress on Syria, as UK participation looks in doubt


The Obama administration will brief lawmakers on Syria in an unclassified teleconference call at 6pm Thursday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James A. Winnefeld Jr. are expected to be on the call, Hill sources said.

The briefing was originally going to be classified which would have required members not in Washington to travel to a federal building with a secure line.

But several lawmakers were apparently traveling and did not think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources say, and the briefing was changed to unclassified to accommodate them. Among those who didn’t think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources said, were Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was reportedly fundraising in North Dakota and Ohio Wednesday. (A spokesman for Cantor did not immediately respond to a query.) House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was traveling in Montana, but an aide said it was not the case that he could not get to  a secure line for the Syria call. “Some other members may have had such an issue but it was not one for the speaker,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, said by email Thursday.

Boehner sent President Obama a detailed letter (.pdf) Wednesday affirming the president's prerogative to act against Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, but seeking more clarification on the U.S. military strategy and legal justification for Syria action.

“It is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner wrote Obama.  “I respectfully request that you, as our country’s commander-in-chief, personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.

The Obama administration- Congressional consultations on Syria are, however, so far positively tame compared to what ally British Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced from British parliament, still haunted by the Ira war. The UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a unanimous assessment Thursday that said, in short, no one else could have conducted the Syrian chemical weapons attack except Syrian regime forces, and that they assessed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons 14 times previously in the conflict on a small scale before the much larger Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta that killed over 300 people. Despite the assessments, British public opinion is wary of getting involved, and Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Cameron at a parliament debate Thursday to delay any action on Syria until further verification from the United Nations chemical weapons inspections team and another UN Security Council debate.

Cameron has agreed not to act before UN inspectors return from Syria on Saturday and report back to the UN Security Council some time next week. The British parliament would then in theory vote on whether to authorize the UK to act.

It’s not clear how long Obama will wait for him, though, especially as the vote looks increasingly unlikely to pass, US and British sources said. Continue reading

Obama makes case for ‘decisive’ but ‘limited’ action on Syria


President Obama said Wednesday that the military strike on Syria he is contemplating was for the limited purpose of preventing the further use chemical weapons, and was not intended to insert the U.S. into the bloody Syrian civil war. Even as he said he had not made a final decision, Obama’s precise explanation of the scope and purpose of prospective U.S. military action made clear that he has all but made up his mind.

“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” Obama told PBS’s News Hour Wednesday.

The President’s comments came as the United Kingdom, facing demands from opposition lawmakers, signaled it wouldn’t be prepared to participate in any action for another week, following two votes by parliament and consideration of a UN inspectors’ report on Syria.

U.S. officials said while they were closely consulting with their British allies, they weren’t going to wait for the UN report to act. UN inspectors were expected to leave the country by the weekend, but do not have a mandate to determine accountability for any chemical weapons evidence they were able to obtain. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the Syrian regime knowingly delayed UN inspectors’ access to the site of the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack for five days, and deliberately destroyed evidence by continuing to shell the area, in the Ghouta region outside Damascus.

“While we’re clearly consulting closely with the Brits, we are making decisions on our timeline,” a US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday evening.

While Washington will want UK participation, it “will be more concerned to get it done quickly,” a former senior U.S. administration official told Al-Monitor Wednesday, on condition of anonymity. The Obama administration “will accept that the UK needs a few days, but if [British Prime Minister David] Cameron doesn’t get [his ducks] in a row, they will not accept any more delays and not let it stop them.”

The emergency of British delay came after Russia on Wednesday once again blocked United Nations Security Council consideration of a UK-drafted resolution authorizing intervention against Syrian chemical weapons use.

The US said forcefully Wednesday that after two and a half years of Russia blocking any Council criticism of the Assad regime, it was done with pursuing the UN route on Syria.

“We see no avenue forward given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful council action on Syria,” Marie Harf, State Department spokesperson, said at the State Department press briefing Wednesday. “We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes.”

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Kerry says 'indiscriminate' Syria chemical attack 'undeniable'

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”

“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”

“Make no mistake:  President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.

Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.

“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said.  “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said.  “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.  That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”

“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.

Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.

Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.

His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.

But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference. Continue reading

Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'


President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

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.”

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