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Citing proof on chemical weapons, U.S. gears up for military action in Syria

A U.N. chemical weapons expert gathers evidence at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, August 26, 2013. The United Nations said on Monday it was still possible for the U.N. team of chemical weapons experts to gather evidence necessary to investigate last week's alleged gas attack despite the lapse of time.

Ahmad Alshami/REUTERS

The United States declared that it is "undeniable" that chemical weapons were used in the attacks that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians last week and that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable.

Reports from the scene, including videos of bodies without wounds and accounts from organizations on the ground, have made it clear that chemical weapons were used, despite "manufactured" excuses, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said – and he said it is the Syrian regime that maintains custody of the weapons and has rockets capable of delivering them.

As Mr. Kerry suggested the United States is gearing up for military action, Western allies lined up in support of a tough response. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made it clear Canada sees a need for a muscular response to the use of chemical weapons.

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"Such an attack demands a firm response from the international community," Mr. Baird said. "In recent days, we've been in very close contact with our international partners and we will continue to work with them in lock-step."

Mr. Kerry did not specifically say the United States will launch military action against the Assad regime, but his counterparts in Britain and France suggested that may be the only option left.

The Canadian support may be an indicator that Ottawa expects any U.S. or allied intervention to be a punitive strike against the Assad regime over chemical weapons, rather a full-scale entry into the civil war. Canada has been very reluctant to support the arming or financing of the Syrian opposition.

United Nations inspectors visited Damascus suburbs on Monday to interview victims of last week's attacks, but Mr. Kerry made it clear in a prepared statement read at the State Department that Washington already has no doubt about who is responsible for what he called the "moral obscenity" of using chemical weapons.

The regime of Mr. al-Assad, he said, had ignored warnings, and violated a principle that could not be ignored.

"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children, and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity," Mr. Kerry said."By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable."

He added later: "President [Barack] Obama believes there must be accountability."

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Many experts believe that the U.S. and its allies are more likely to launch punitive strikes, to exact a cost from the Assad regime and deter others from ever using chemical weapons, rather than to tip the balance in Syria's civil war. The Obama administration has shown its reluctance to enter another messy war.

So far, no intervention has been authorized by the United Nations Security Council – and both Britain's Foreign Secretary Willian Hague and France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that allies will want an international-law justification for an intervention. Russia, an ally of Syria, has so far blocked Security Council action on Syria and would be expected to veto any mandate for an attack.

But the U.S. and its allies might still argue that the use of chemical weapons, a violation of international law, forces them to act, and then cobble together a broad alliance to support it – a so-called "coalition of the willing." On Tuesday, Mr. Obama spoke with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose country sits on the UN Security Council, to discuss possible international responses to the Syrian crisis.

UN inspectors came under fire as they travelled to the Damascus suburbs to investigate last week's attacks, with shots hitting the windows and tires of one car, according to UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke Monday evening with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and both men expressed their concern about the "disturbing" events of the past week, the Prime Minister's Office said in a summary. Mr. Harper commended UN inspectors working under difficult circumstances.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin insists the U.S. has no evidence of a chemical weapons attack, or whether the Assad regime was behind it. But Western allies including Canada, Britain, and France said there was no longer any doubt – as Mr. Kerry laid out a case.

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He said the gruesome images of families dead in their beds, the numbers of dead, their symptoms, and first-hand reports of organizations like Doctors Without Borders left no doubt chemical weapons were used in Syria. In addition, the Assad regime "maintains custody" of chemical weapons, has the capacity to deliver them by rocket and was determined to clear the rebels from the very area where they were deployed – and shelled the area later.

Mr. Kerry revealed he called Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem last Thursday, and warned that the Syrian government's response needed to be immediate access for inspectors. "Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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