UN experts who collected samples from an alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus on Aug. 21 left Syria for the Netherlands yesterday, hours after US President Barack Obama said he is weighing “limited and narrow” action against the Syrian regime his administration blames for the attack.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Obama not to rush into a decision. The Russian leader said he was convinced the attack was a provocation carried out by those who want to draw the US into the conflict, but that Washington should show any evidence to the contrary to the UN inspectors and the UN Security Council.
“If there is evidence it should be presented,” Putin said. “If it is not presented, that means it does not exist.” Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest allies. Putin’s comments were his first on the crisis since the suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
The UN inspectors spent three days touring stricken areas near Damascus and a fourth day interviewing patients at a government-run military hospital. They wrapped up their investigation on Friday and left Syria yesterday, via Lebanon.
Later yesterday, the team was en route to the Dutch city of Rotterdam aboard a German government-chartered plane, the German Foreign Ministry said.
The experts took blood and urine samples from victims as well as soil samples from the affected areas for examination in laboratories in Europe. The UN has said it will try to expedite its final report.
With the inspectors now out of Syria, the looming confrontation between the US and al-Assad’s regime moves one step closer to coming to a head. Most observers viewed US military action as unlikely while the UN team was still inside Syria, but the Obama administration has made clear that it is confident in its assessment and could act before the UN releases the results of its probe.
Obama has said that if he opts for a military strike, any operation would be limited in scope and only aimed at punishing al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
However, US action carries the potential to trigger retaliation by the Syrian regime or its proxies against US allies in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel. That would be a dangerous new turn for the Syrian civil war, which has already killed more than 100,000 people, forced nearly 2 million to flee and inflamed tensions across the Middle East.
While Obama has long been wary of US military involvement in the conflict, the administration on Friday forcefully made its case for action. It accused the al-Assad regime of carrying out what it says was a chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the main groups monitoring casualties in Syria, said yesterday it has only been able to confirm 502 deaths, identifying victims by name.
Its list is based on interviews with hospital officials and activists in the affected areas, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
The Britain-based group, which draws its information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, urged the Obama administration to release the information its far higher death toll is based on.
With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action.
“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,” he said.
The US already has warships in place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria’s coastal waters. The vessels are armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can strike distant targets without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
The Syrian government dismissed the administration’s claims as “flagrant lies.”
A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement read on state television late on Friday 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.”