Thursday, December 12, 2013
By SYLVIE CORBET Associated Press
PARIS — France released an intelligence report on Monday alleging chemical weapons use by Syria's regime that dovetailed with similar U.S. claims, as President Bashar Assad warned that any military strike against his country would spark an uncontrollable regional war and spread "chaos and extremism."
Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border today. Routine prevailed at a U.S.-Turkish airbase in southern Turkey on Monday, a day after the U.S. alleged that sarin gas was used in an August chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Monday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:
Assad said military strikes against his country would risk triggering a regional war. He said the Middle East is a "powder keg" and no one can say what will transpire if the West takes military action against Syria. He warned "the whole world will lose control of the situation. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists."
Sen. John McCain told reporters at the White House that Obama must make a strong case for attacking Bashar Assad's Syria if he wants to win congressional backing for the operation. He also said Obama's intervention now will be more difficult because Assad "is moving his forces around." Both McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham, who spoke after meeting Obama, questioned the wisdom of the administration publicly signaling in advance its intention to strike.
A French intelligence report estimated that the Syrian regime launched the alleged Aug. 21 attack involving a "massive use of chemical agents" and could carry out similar strikes in the future. The government, on its Web site, published a 9-page intelligence synopsis about Syria's chemical weapons program that found that at least 281 deaths could be attributed to the attack in rebel-held areas outside Damascus.
The Russian news agency Interfax said President Vladimir Putin hopes to send a delegation of lawmakers to the U.S. to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said evidence the U.S. showed Moscow to blame the Syrian regime for the alleged chemical weapons attack was "absolutely unconvincing." He said "there was nothing specific" in the evidence.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief adviser brushed aside fears that a U.S. strike against Syria could provoke Damascus to attack Turkey. Yalcin Akdogan told the Turkish daily newspaper Aksam that an attack on Turkey "would be madness and suicide" because Turkey is a member of NATO. The alliance is committed to defending member states.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said his country urged the U.S. not to take unilateral action against Syria. He said Washington briefed Beijing about the matter and that China is concerned about chemical weapons use but that the country opposes the U.S. acting alone. Hong didn't address the possibility of the U.S. acting together with France's government, which supports a strike. Beijing would almost certainly be opposed to any strike.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger in Germany's upcoming election said late Sunday they wouldn't participate in military action against Syria. Merkel said there must be "a collective answer by the U.N." to the use of chemical weapons in Syria as she faced center-left rival Peer Steinbrueck in a televised debate. Steinbrueck said he wouldn't participate in military action as chancellor and would "greatly regret it" if the U.S. strikes alone without an international mandate.
— Associated Press
The verbal crossfire, including a rejection of the Western allegations by longtime Syrian ally Russia, was part of frenzied efforts on both sides to court international public opinion after President Barack Obama said he would seek authorization from Congress before launching any military action against Assad's regime.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad was quoted as saying that Syria has challenged the U.S. and France to provide proof to support their allegations, but that their leaders "have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples."
"If the Americans, the French or the British had a shred of proof, they would have shown it beginning on the first day," he said, deriding Obama as "weak" and having buckled to U.S. domestic political pressure.
"We believe that a strong man is one who prevents war, not one who inflames it," Assad said.
French President Francois Hollande and Obama have been the two world leaders most vocally calling for action against Assad's regime, accusing it of carrying out a deadly chemical attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
It has marked an intolerable escalation in a two-year civil war in Syria that has left some 100,000 people dead.
The Syrian government denies the allegations, and blames opposition fighters. In the Figaro interview, Assad questioned whether an attack took place at all and refused to say whether his forces have chemical weapons, as is widely believed.
If the U.S. and France strike, "Everyone will lose control of the situation ... Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists," he added.
To back up its case, the French government published a nine-page intelligence synopsis Monday that concluded Assad's regime had launched an attack on Aug. 21 involving a "massive use of chemical agents," and could carry out similar strikes in the future.
In all, though, the French report provided little new concrete evidence beyond what U.S. officials provided over the weekend in Washington. Along with it, the French Defense Ministry posted on its Web site six clips of amateur video showing victims, some of which has already been widely available online and in the international media.
In the Figaro interview, Assad said "all the accusations are based on allegations of the terrorists and on arbitrary videos posted on the Internet."
The French report made no specific reference to the agencies involved or how the intelligence was collected about the attack, aside from referring to videos of the injured or killed, doctors' accounts, and "independent evaluations" such as one from Paris-based humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders three days after the attack.
A French government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak about the matter because of its sensitivity, said the analysis was written by the spy agency DGSE and the military intelligence unit, DRM, and was based on satellite imagery, video images, and on-the-ground sources — plus samples collected from the alleged chemical attacks in April.
The assessment said it was "very unlikely" that Syria's opposition had falsified images of suffering children that turned up online. It also said intelligence indicated the opposition "does not have the means to conduct such a large attack with chemical agents."
(Continued on page 2)