US President Barack Obama met with his top national security advisers early yesterday to discuss the response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, a White House official said.
“The president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” the official said.
Obama is under mounting pressure to act following reports of a massive chemical attack near Damascus that opposition groups say killed as many as 1,300 people.
The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
Obama had repeatedly warned that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a “red line” that could bring about a more strident Western response to the two-year-old civil war.
On Friday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that the US was moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria.
However, Obama has also voiced caution about the kind of intervention that could draw the US into another prolonged conflict in the Middle East.
US commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of options for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters during a visit to Southeast Asia.
“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” Hagel said. “And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options — whatever the president might choose.”
Meanwhile, the Syrian government said yesterday that rebel fighters used chemical weapons in a northeastern district of the capital, countering charges by insurgents that the regime was behind the alleged attacks.
“An army unit is surrounding a sector of Jobar where terrorists used chemical weapons,” the state broadcaster said, adding that soldiers who tried to enter the neighbourhood had “suffocated.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government carried out four air raids yesterday on areas near Jabar, where soldiers and rebels fighters were locked in fierce clashes.
The state broadcaster also said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both openly support the 29-month-old revolt against al-Assad, had supplied rebels with gas masks and medication.
In a sweep of Jabar, “the army found barrels marked ‘made in Saudi Arabia’ and gas masks,” a correspondent for the channel reported, adding that medicine for poison gas inhalation was also found, with the brand of a German-Qatari firm.
Rebels have “resorted to chemical weapons after the successes of the Syrian army in recent days,” the television said.