U.S. readies cruise missiles, Syria allows inspections

Posted at 2:52 PM, Aug 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-25 15:14:21-04

DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) — Syria will allow U.N. inspectors full access to any site of a purported chemical weapons attack, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad told CNN on Sunday.

The agreement is effective immediately, he said.

But a senior U.S. official called it too little, too late.

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The inspectors hope to begin their probe on Monday at the site of last week’s suspected chemical attack, according to a statement from the office of the U.N. secretary-general.

Al Mekdad said logistics need to be worked out, since arriving at the site will require crossing into rebel-controlled territory.

Rebel forces and the Syrian regime point the finger at each other for Wednesday’s attack. Gruesome video of the aftermath showed numerous bodies, including women and children.

“If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN — five days ago,” a senior official in the Obama administration said Sunday.

“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said in a statement. “Based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts, and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”

The United States is “continuing to assess the facts so the President can make an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons,” the official said.

The Pentagon has sent four warships armed with cruise missiles to the region.

Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama said “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

An Iranian military official warned the United States on Sunday against crossing Syria’s own “red line.”

Massoud Jazayeri, a deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said it would have “severe consequences,” according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Jihadist group vows revenge

The jihadist group al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda, vowed Sunday to revenge the attack by targeting Alawite villages.

An audio message posted on YouTube, purportedly from al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, accuses the Syrian regime of bombarding eastern Ghouta “with tens of missiles” carrying a “suffocating chemical agent,” killing “hundreds of children, women and men.”

“We are announcing a series of revenge operations called ‘An Eye for an Eye.’ Your Alawite villages will pay a very dear price for every chemical rocket that you’ve launched against our people.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is part of the country’s Alawite minority.

Al Mekdad insisted that the government has not carried out chemical weapons attacks.

U.N. inspectors have been in Syria attempting to gather information. Before Sunday, they had reported not being able to visit the site of the recent attack.

The U.N.’s high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday to push the government to cooperate with the team already on the ground.

Government denial

According to Syrian state-run television’s depiction of events, government forces came across the site of the gas attack when they entered the rebel stronghold of Jobar on the edge of Damascus. The bodies of some of those killed in the attack early Wednesday had been found there.

Several of the soldiers were “suffocating” from exposure to gases as they entered the city, according to state TV.

“It is believed that the terrorists have used chemical weapons in the area,” Syrian TV reported, citing an anonymous source. The government uses the term “terrorists” to describe rebel forces.

Broadcast video showed a room containing gas masks, gas canisters and other paraphernalia that could be used in a gas attack. The army said it uncovered the cache in a storage facility in Jobar. CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

The Syrian government has steadfastly denied its forces used chemical weapons outside Damascus or elsewhere and repeated the denial Saturday.

“We said it from the first moment and, here, we assure again that we have never used chemical weapons (around Jobar) or any other region in any form whatsoever — … liquid, gas or whatever,” Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an interview on Lebanese television.

He blamed the rebels.

Opposition accusations

The rebels say that government forces fired rockets into the heavily populated civilian area. Opposition spokesman Badr Jamous from the Syrian National Coalition claimed that some of the rockets delivered chemical payloads.

More than 1,300 people were killed, most of them by gas, said Khaled al-Saleh, another spokesman for the group.

Al-Saleh said that medical teams in the affected area had administered 25,000 shots of atropine — a medication used to treat people exposed to the nerve gas sarin — after the attack.

Video showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or who appeared to be struggling to breathe.

CNN could not verify where or when the videos were recorded, and could not confirm the number of casualties.

Doctor assessments

Adding weight to the assertions that chemical weapons were used was a statement Saturday by Doctors Without Borders.

Three hospitals supported by the international organization in Syria’s Damascus governorate reported having received some 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms last Wednesday morning, the statement said.

Of them, 355 reportedly died, it said.

Medical staff told the aid organization that many patients arrived with symptoms such as convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress, said director of operations Dr. Bart Janssens.

Patients were treated with atropine.

“The reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events — characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers — strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent,” Janssens said.

Speedy response

If the claims that Syria used chemical weapons are true, a speedy response will be needed to prevent another such attack, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.

The defense chief said the American military was positioning assets to provide Obama with options, but did not specify what those options might include.

The Navy destroyer USS Ramage has arrived in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a defense official said late Friday. It joins the USS Mahan, the USS Gravely and the USS Barry.

All four are equipped with cruise missiles.

A senior Defense Department official told CNN that military planners have updated Syrian target lists. These could include al-Assad’s capability to deliver chemical weapons but also government buildings.

Obama has said he does not anticipate using ground forces in Syria.

CNN’s Ben Brumfield, Elise Labott, and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.