Syria rebels are shown September 13, 2013 at a former military academy north of Aleppo/AFP
DAMASCUS September 16- UN chief Ban Ki-moon will on Monday present a report on Syria’s chemical weapons, increasing pressure on the Assad regime, as support grows for a US-Russian initiative to avert war.
Ban will unveil the findings of a UN investigation team to the UN Security Council in New York at 11:15am (1515 GMT). He has already revealed that he expects the report to provide “overwhelming” confirmation that chemical arms were used in an attack near Damascus on August 21 in which hundreds died.
The Russia US accord on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical stockpile will also weigh heavily on Security Council consultations expected to be called Monday.
International support for the initiative is slowing, even as Washington and Paris warned that military action remains an option.
A Syrian minister insisted Sunday that the US Russia deal represented a “victory” for the regime of President Bashar al Assad
“On one hand, it helps the Syrians emerge from the crisis and on the other it has allowed for averting war against Syria,” Minister of State for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar told Russian news agency Ria Novosti of the deal.
“It’s a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”
His remarks came as US Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brief him on the plan and emerged with a word of warning for Damascus.
“The threat of force remains, the threat is real,” Kerry said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Netanyahu.
Washington is seeking to bolster international support for the agreement signed in Geneva on Saturday, which demands rapid action from Damascus.
The ambitious plan to dismantle and destroy Syria’s chemical arms stockpile one of the largest in the world by mid 2014 was thrashed out over three days in Geneva between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
It gives Assad a week to hand over details of his regime’s arsenal of the internationally banned arms in order to avert unspecified sanctions and the threat of US led military strikes.
It also specifies there must be immediate access for arms control experts and that inspections of what the US says are some 45 sites linked to the Syrian chemical weapons programme must be completed by November.
French President Francois Hollande, whose country has taken a hard line against Assad’s regime, said the deal was an “important step” but “not an end point”.
Kerry flew from Israel to Paris where he will hold talks Monday with Hollande, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal and their Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.
Syria’s information minister said Damascus would commit to the plan once it had United Nations approval.
“Syria is committing itself to whatever comes from the UN,” Omran al Zohbi told Britain’s ITN television.
“We accept the Russian plan to get rid of our chemical weapons. In fact we’ve started preparing our list.”
However the Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad have rejected the deal, warning it would not halt the conflict.
“Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid 2014, to continue being killed every day and to accept (the deal) just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014?” asked Free Syrian Army chief General Selim Idriss.
The deal won the important backing of China, a veto wielding permanent member of the Security Council, which like Russia has blocked several UN resolutions on Syria.
“This agreement will enable tensions in Syria to be eased,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his visiting French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Beijing.
Edging toward a punitive strike against Syria, President Barack Obama said Friday he is weighing “limited and narrow” action as the administration bluntly accused Bashar Assad’s government of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people far more than previous estimates including more than 400 children.
No “boots on the ground,” Mr. Obama said, seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With France as his only major public ally, Mr. Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action. He added, “Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.”
In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week’s attack. The international contingent left Syria early on Saturday and crossed into Lebanon. They were heading later to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.
Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims had died from a poisonous gas attack.
The Syrian government said administration claims were “flagrant lies” akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that “under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians.”
Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic. One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said, “I am not afraid from the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria for the sake of Israel.”
Mr. Obama met with his national security aides at the White House and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack.
But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would act and soon. It was an impression heightened both by strongly worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the attack.
In addition to the dead, the assessment reported that about 3,600 patients “displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure” were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack. To that, Mr. Kerry added 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 they would be discovered.” He added for emphasis, “We know this.”
The assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large casualty count, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders. Not surprisingly given the nature of the disclosure it also did not say expressly how the United States knew what one Syrian official had allegedly said to another.
Mindful of public opinion, Mr. Kerry urged Americans to read the four-page assessment for themselves. He referred to Iraq when Bush administration assurances that weapons of mass destruction were present proved false, and a U.S. invasion led to a long, deadly war. Mr. Kerry said this time it will be different.
“We will not repeat that moment,” he said.
Citing an imperative to act, the nation’s top diplomat said “it is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk.”
The President said firmly that the attack “threatens our national security interest by violating well-established international norms.”
While Mr. Obama was having trouble enlisting foreign support, French President Francois Hollande was an exception. The two men spoke by phone and then Mr. Hollande issued a statement saying they had “agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it must hold the Syrian regime responsible and send a strong message to denounce the use of (such) arms.”
The day’s events produced sharply differing responses from members of Congress and that was just the Republicans.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Mr. Obama needed to go further than he seems planning. “The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces,” they said in a statement.
But a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Brendan Buck, said if the president believes in a military response to Syria, “it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action.”
The looming confrontation is the latest outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously and brutally clung to power. An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them from attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens.
Mr. Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events elsewhere during the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.
Still, Mr. Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a “red line” that Mr. Assad should not cross. And Mr. Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.
With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political crosscurrents have been intense both domestically and overseas.
Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, have signed a letter saying Mr. Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to launch hostilities.
Despite the urgings, there has been little or no discussion about calling Congress back into session to debate the issue. Lawmakers have been on a summer break for nearly a month, and are not due to return to the Capitol until Sept. 9. Mr. Obama has not sought a vote of congressional approval for any military action. Neither Republican nor Democratic congressional leaders have challenged his authority to act or sought to have lawmakers called into session before he does.
Senior White House, State Department, Pentagon and intelligence officials met for an-hour-and-half on Friday with more than a dozen senators who serve on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. He described the discussion as “open and constructive.”
The White House will brief Republican senators in a conference call Saturday at the request of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a spokesman for the senator, Don Stewart, said.
Mr. Obama’s efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to win a vote of approval in Parliament for military action ended in ignominious defeat on Thursday. American attempts to secure backing at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings to U.N. member states and the Security Council.
Though no one would say the northern border is stable, the balance of deterrence has held there since 2006. But the S-300 could change that, and restrict the IAF’s freedom of action.
Lebanese media raised the tension level in the north several degrees Thursday morning when it quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad saying Russia had already sent him the S-300 anti-aircraft system. Israeli defense officials have warned in recent days that the military could well act to prevent Syria from operating the system.
Israel treated the report skeptically, saying it had no information to confirm it, suspecting it was merely a crude attempt at psychological warfare. And in fact, this skepticism proved warranted: When the full text of Assad’s interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station was published, it turned out that all he said, when asked whether the S-300 had been delivered yet, was, “All of our agreements with Russia will be implemented, some have been implemented during the past period and, together with the Russians, we will continue to implement these contracts in the future.”
It’s not impossible that Israeli intelligence could have missed a first delivery of components. But even if so, the system would still be a long way from operational. The process of setting it up is expected to take anywhere from six months to a year.
First, Syrian operators will have to be trained to use the system in Russia. Next, the components have to be delivered. Finally, the system has to be put together and calibrated before it can be declared operational.
Israel, as National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror warned explicitly last week, is considering attacking the system before it becomes operational. In so doing, however, Israel would effectively be jumping straight into the Syrian civil war, something it has long promised to make every effort to avoid. Any decision to attack would also have to take into account the possibility that Russia would view this as a direct challenge to it.
Nevertheless, Israel has good reason to be worried about the S-300: Its arrival would fundamentally change the balance of deterrence in the north. During the first Lebanon War, in 1982, the Israel Air Force destroyed Syria’s surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Ever since, for more than three decades now, it has enjoyed complete dominance of the northern skies. That is why both the Syrian army and Hezbollah subsequently equipped themselves with large numbers of missiles and rockets: These are weapons that can circumvent the IAF to strike Israel’s home front.
Though no one would say the northern border is stable, the balance of deterrence appears to have held there since the Second Lebanon War of 2006. But the S-300 could restrict the IAF’s freedom of action.
Former senior air force officials said Thursday night that if necessary, the IAF could overcome this obstacle. Reuters reported Thursday that Cyprus, which has an S-300 on the Greek island of Crete, “may have given Israel’s air force a chance for test runs during maneuvers over the Mediterranean.” Nevertheless, this system has the potential to significantly change the equation.
This fact once again raises questions about the wisdom of the third Israeli air strike on Syria, even if Russia might have gone through with the sale anyhow, for its own reasons. Either way, it seems Assad is now trying a variety of tactics to deter further Israeli attacks, from threatening to respond with missile launches through threatening to attack from the Golan Heights (in his Al-Manar interview Thursday, he said “there is clear popular pressure to open the Golan front to resistance”) to reports of the S-300 deal.
Two other reports connected to the Syrian crisis also hit the news Thursday. First, the Nigerian government announced the capture of a three-man Hezbollah cell that had planned to attack Israeli and Western targets. Nigerian military spokesman Capt. Ikedichi Iweha said in a statement that the three Lebanese suspects were arrested between May 16 and May 28 in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, and all had admitted under questioning to being members of Hezbollah.
A raid on the residence of one suspect uncovered 11 60mm antitank weapons, four anti-tank land mines, two rounds of ammunition for a 122mm artillery gun, 21 rocket-propelled grenades, 17 AK-47 rifles with more than 11,000 bullets, and dynamite, Iweha said.
Hezbollah and Iran have tried repeatedly to attack Israeli targets overseas in recent years, including in Georgia, India, Thailand, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Thus the Nigerian cell isn’t necessarily connected to events in Syria.
Nevertheless, it’s not inconceivable that the tension between Israel and Syria helped spur Hezbollah, Syria’s close ally, to make this latest attempt.
Also Thursday, the Washington Post published a shopping list that the Syrian army sent to Russia in March. In it, the army requested a price quote “in the shortest possible time” for a list of items that included 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 20 million rounds of ammunition, machine guns, grenade launchers, grenades, and sniper rifles with night-vision sights. The S-300, it seems, is far from the only thing Assad wants from Russia.