State department casts doubt on UN investigator Carla del Ponte’s claim that opposition may have deployed nerve agent
The US has cast doubt on claims by UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte that Syrian rebel forces could have used the nerve agent sarin.
The US and United Nations have cast doubt on claims by Carla del Ponte that Syrian rebel forces might have used the nerve agent sarin.
“We are highly sceptical of any suggestions that the opposition used chemical weapons,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We think it highly likely that Assad regime was responsible but we have to be sure about the facts before we make any decisions about a response.”
Speaking on Sunday del Ponte, a member of a UN panel investigating in Syria, said there were “strong, concrete suspicions” the Syrian rebels had used poison gas. She cited testimony from survivors in hospitals outside Syria, but gave no details. “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she told Swiss-Italian TV.
But the UN’s Syria investigators appeared to row back on del Ponte’s remarks on Monday, saying there was thus far “no conclusive proof” that either side in the Syria conflict had used chemical weapons.
“The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict,” the commission said in a statement.
Supporters of Syria’s moderate opposition also dismissed del Ponte’s remarks, pointing out that if the rebels had had access to chemical weapons they would have been tempted to use them much earlier against Assad’s military bases.
President Obama is coming under growing pressure in Washington from Congress to take action in Syria, but continues to insist the evidence gathered by Britain and France is not conclusive. “We have seen in the not too distance past the consequences of acting before the facts were available,” said Carney.
On Friday, UK defence secretary Philip Hammond admitted western intelligence services would probably have to wait for a further chemical attack before gathering enough information to trace it back to the government because the quality of earlier evidence had degraded over time.
Del Ponte’s comments further complicate the diplomatic argument over what the west should do in Syria, following air strikes by Israel against Syrian military targets over the weekend, and with the prospect of a regional conflict growing.
Israel sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the Syrian regime on Monday with a senior military commander saying there were “no winds of war” blowing across its northern border, amid a cautious consensus that a double bombing raid at the weekend was unlikely to provoke an immediate and direct response.
However, two stray shells from Syria’s two-year bloody civil war landed on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Monday afternoon in a reminder of the close proximity of the fighting. There were no casualties.
US secretary of state John Kerry will meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday in “another stab” at persuading the Russian president to join international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. “We certainly want to try to make another stab at it, to make another effort at it, because events on the ground have become steadily worse,” an unnamed official told Reuters.
Israel targeted stocks of Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 missiles, which have a 200-mile range and precision guidance systems, in airstrikes near Damascus on Friday and Sunday which, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed 42 Syrian soldiers. The bombings followed clear warnings by Israel that it would act to prevent sophisticated weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon or jihadist fighters inside Syria. Israel was “within its right to prevent the transfer of this kind of weapon to Hezbollah”, said Carney.
Israel routinely does not formally acknowledge such strikes. But an Israeli politician close to the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the action had been directed “against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime”. Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio that the aim was “to keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions are exposed, and refrain from tension with Syria”.
China called for restraint in the region. “We oppose the use of military force and believe any country’s sovereignty should be respected,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. “China also calls on all relevant parties to begin from the basis of protecting regional peace and stability, maintain restraint and avoid taking any actions that would escalate tensions and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.”
In the aftermath of the air strikes the Israeli Defence Forces’ northern commander, Major General Yair Golan, said there were “no winds of war” along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, although the military was ready and alert to deal with any retaliation.
Defence experts in Washington said the strikes showed that US fears about Syrian air defences may need to be reassessed.
“Israel’s success does indicate that the purely military risks in enforcing some form of no fly or no move zone are now more limited that when the fighting in Syria began,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “At the same time, this does not mean that Syria could not put up a defence or that the US could simply rely on a few strikes or threats to either destroy Syria’s air defence or intimidate it into complying with US demands.”