Israeli intelligence 'intercepted Syrian regime talk about chemical attack'
Information passed to US by Israeli Defence Forces's 8200 unit, former official tells magazine
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem and agencies
theguardian.com, Wednesday 28 August 2013 09.25 BST
A team of United Nations inspectors have resumed their second day of investigations at the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, as western leaders moved towards military action in response to the Syrian regime's reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
The UN team left their Damascus hotel early on Wednesday after the operation was suspended on Tuesday following a sniper attack on its convoy on Monday.
The bulk of evidence proving the Assad regime's deployment of chemical weapons – which would provide legal grounds essential to justify any western military action – has been provided by Israeli military intelligence, the German magazine Focus has reported.
Binyamin Netanyahu Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel was 'prepared for every scenario'. Photograph: Yossi Aloni/AFP/Getty Images
The 8200 unit of the Israeli Defence Forces, which specialises in electronic surveillance, intercepted a conversation between Syrian officials regarding the use of chemical weapons, an unnamed former Mossad official told Focus. The content of the conversation was relayed to the US, the ex-official said.
The 8200 unit collects and analyses electronic data, including wiretapped telephone calls and emails. It is the largest unit in the IDF.
Israel has invested in intelligence assets in Syria for decades, according to a senior government official. "We have an historic intelligence effort in the field, for obvious reasons," he said.
Israel and the US had a "close and co-operative relationship in the intelligence field", he added, but declined to comment specifically on the Focus report.
Senior Israeli security officials arrived in Washington on Monday to share the latest results of intelligence-gathering, and to review the Syrian crisis with national security adviser Susan Rice.
In northern Israel, a military training exercise began on Wednesday in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967. There have been numerous incidences of mortar shells and gunfire landing on the Israeli-controlled Golan over the past year, prompting return fire by the IDF on occasion.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was due to convene the security cabinet on Wednesday to discuss impending US military intervention in Syria. Officials are assessing the chances of Syrian retaliation against Israel following US action.
An unnamed senior Syrian army officer told the Iranian news agency Fars: "If Syria is attacked, Israel will also be set on fire and such an attack will, in turn, engage Syria's neighbours."
Israel was "prepared for every scenario" and would respond forcefully if necessary, Netanyahu said after the meeting.
Later, Benny Gantz, the Israeli chief of staff, said: "Those who wish to harm us will find us sharper and firmer than ever. Our enemies should know that we are determined and ready to defend our citizens by any action necessary, against any threat and in any scenario we will face."
The likelihood of Syrian retaliation depended on the scale of the US attack, said military analyst Alex Fishman.
"If it is decided to fire several dozen Tomahawk missiles at military targets, there is a chance that the Syrians will succeed in containing the attack, presenting the offensive as a failure and praising the staying power of the army and the Syrian people; however, if it is decided to fire hundreds of missiles and significantly harm its strategic assets, the Syrian need for an act of revenge will heighten," Fishman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth.
"The formula is simple: The more threatened the Syrian regime feels, the greater the chance that it will fire at its neighbours," he added.
Meanwhile, demand for gas masks and protection kits from the Israeli public continued to rise. The Israeli postal authority said telephone inquiries had increased by 300% and queues had formed outside distribution depots.
According to a report in Ma'ariv, Israel's home front command is grappling with the problem of providing gas masks to men with beards, extremely common among ultra-Orthodox Jews. A special mask, which can accommodate a beard, is available but the high cost means it is only distributed to men over 65 or whose beards are for health reasons.
"Men who grow beards for religious reasons will have to shave in the event of a chemical attack," Ma'ariv reported.
US strike on Syria could come within days as military assets 'ready to go'
Defence secretary says resources have been moved into place, but White House says options do not include 'regime change'
Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 28 August 2013 07.40 BST
The United States military has provided Barack Obama with a range of options for launching an attack on Syria and is "ready to go" with an offensive, the US defence secretary has said.
There is now a growing belief in Washington that a US strike against Syria, possibly involving cruise missiles or long-range bombers, could take place in the next few days.
Chuck Hagel said military officials had presented the US president with "all options for all contingencies" and put resources in place to take action against Syria over its purported use of chemical weapons.
"We are prepared, we have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take, if he wishes to take any of the options he's asked for," he told the BBC. "We are ready to go, like that."
The White House insisted on Tuesday that Barack Obama had still not made a decision about the use of military action, but stressed that "boots on the ground" was not an option being contemplated. "The options that we are considering are not about regime change," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
He declined to say whether the US Congress would be required to authorise any military strike, or be recalled as has happened in Britain's parliament, but insisted the White House was consulting with leaders in the House and Senate and communicating with the chairmen of relevant congressional committees.
He said a US intelligence assessment of the chemical attack in a Damascus suburb would be published "this week".
In a sign that Obama believes he has the legal authority, independently of Congress, to launch a strike, Carney said that allowing the chemical weapons attack to go unanswered would be a "threat to the United States".
US defence officials recently said a destroyer armed with cruise missiles – one of four warships in the region – has been stationed in the eastern Mediterranean sea. Military transporters have also been spotted at Britain's Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, less than 100 miles from the Syrian coast.
Reports from the region suggest the US is gearing up for a swift military action, possibly as soon as Thursday, in a punitive show of force against President Bashar al-Assad. Syria has denied its forces were responsible for a chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, which is believed to have killed hundreds.
Jo Biden, the US vice-president, has become the most senior member of the Obama administration to blame the Syrian government for the attack.
Addressing a group of veterans in Houston, he said there was "no doubt who was responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime".
He added that "those who use chemical weapons against defenceless men, women and children ... must be held accountable".
The Syrian opposition has been told to expect a strike against Syrian forces within days, according to a Reuters report of a meeting that took place on Monday. The meeting with the Syrian National Coalition took place in in Istanbul, and included senior western diplomats including Robert Ford, a top US official with responsibility for Syria.
"The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva," a source at the meeting told the news agency.
The chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, told Congress last month that even "limited standoff strikes" against Syria would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and submarines and could cost billions of dollars.
While such action would "degrade regime capabilities" and lead to defections, Dempsey told the House Foreign Affairs committee, there was a risk of retaliatory attacks and "collateral damage impacting civilians". He also warned of "unintended consequences" of any military intervention in the complex civil war.
In Britain, there were strong signs military action could be imminent, after the prime minister David Cameron announced parliament would be recalled to vote on a motion about the country's "response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria" on Thursday.
The US would be expected to have laid out preliminary plans for any military attack, or at least expressed a clearer intent over the use of force, before any foreign government voted on on whether to support such action.
World leaders have issued a string of bellicose statements in the last 24 hours, with Iran and Russia standing alongside the Assad regime against an emerging western alliance led by the US, UK, France and Australia. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Araqchi, intimated that Tehran would respond, should the west strike.
US secretary of state John Kerry said on Monday that Syria had committed a "moral obscenity" and Obama was preparing a co-ordinated with response with international allies. "Make no mistake," Kerry said. "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapon against the world's most vulnerable people."
The White House, which has long been reluctant to become militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, appears to have shifted its position over the weekend, after a top intelligence officials presented evidence of the chemical attack, arguing it could only have been administered by Syrian forces.
The administration is preparing to release parts of its intelligence assessment in the coming days, as it attempts to build congressional and public support for tough action against Syria. "I think the intelligence will conclude that it wasn't the rebels who used it, and there'll probably be pretty good intelligence to show is that the Syria government was responsible," Hagel said. "But we'll wait and determine what the facts and the intelligence bear out."
He added: "In our opinion, I think the opinion of the entire world community, Syria used chemical weapons against its own people.
"I think most of our allies, most of our partners, most of the international community that we've talked to – and we have reached out and talked to many – have little doubt that the most base international humanitarian standard was violated in using chemical weapons against their own people."
Hagel's comments about Syria's "violation" of an international human rights standard echoed the language used by the State Department and White House. It suggests the US will attempt to mount a legal justification for any strikes, outside a UN framework, by arguing Assad's forces were responsible for a breach of humanitarian law.
Strong opposition from from Russia and China means it is highly unlikely the US will receive support for military action from the UN security council.
Although the US stresses the administration is seeking a broad coalition of partners for any action, the UN is being increasingly sidelined. Carney said on Tuesday the work of weapons inspectors now was Damascus was "redundant" because it has already been established that chemical weapons were used by Syria on a large scale.
In a further blow to the inspections process, the UN said on Tuesday that its inspectors had postponed their visit to one of the affected sites for 24 hours amid concerns for their security.
An sniper attack on the UN team on Monday led to substantial delays.
"Following yesterday's attack on the UN convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team," the UN said in a statement.
Syria crisis: Britain will seek UN clearance for military action
David Cameron says UK will put forward resolution at security council 'authorising necessary measures to protect civilians'
Andrew Sparrow, political correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 28 August 2013 10.54 BST
Britain will try to get the United Nations security council to authorise military intervention in Syria, David Cameron has said.
He made the announcement on Twitter after the Labour party decided overnight to toughen its stance on the issue, making support for the government in Thursday's Commons vote conditional on Cameron's seeking the involvement of the UN.
But Downing Street sources said approaching the UN had always been part of the government's plan, and denied Labour had bounced Cameron into acting.
One Liberal Democrat source said the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, had been particularly keen to take the matter to the UN, and that when Cameron, Clegg and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, met to discuss Syria on Tuesday afternoon Clegg was the first person to raise the importance of trying to secure UN support.
Cameron said Britain would put forward a resolution at a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN security council on Wednesday afternoon condemning the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and "authorising necessary measures to protect civilians".
Previously the government has in public played down the need for a debate at the security council, where Russia and China have been staunch opponents of anti-Assad initiatives. But, in one of three tweets on the subject, Cameron said he wanted the UN to "live up to its responsibilities on Syria".
Earlier, Downing Street confirmed that Cameron spoke to the US president, Barack Obama, on Tuesday night, before a meeting of Britain's National Security Council (NSC) at which defence chiefs will outline a series of arms-length options for targeted attacks against Syria.
Although Downing Street said Cameron and Obama had not yet agreed on the "specific nature" of their response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it is understood that they are planning limited missile attacks before the end of the week.
Cameron has recalled parliament to allow MPs to vote on the matter on Thursday. On Tuesday afternoon, after Ed Miliband had met Cameron to discuss the matter, Labour indicated that it would be willing to support the government, provided military action was legal and proportionate.
But early on Wednesday morning Labour said it was making its support for the government dependent on new conditions.
A party spokesman said: "We have made it clear that we want to see a clear legal basis for any action. As part of the legal justification, Labour is seeking the direct involvement of the United Nations through the evidence of the weapons inspectors and consideration by the security council."
This raised the possibility that Labour could refuse to back the government's motion on Thursday, perhaps voting for its own motion instead, although the party said it would not take a decision until the text of the government's motion was available, later on Wednesday.
The British and American governments have until now dismissed suggestions that military action should be delayed until the UN weapons inspectors in Damascus have reported, arguing that it is already obvious that chemical weapons were used and that the inspectors' report will not say which side was responsible for their deployment.
Cameron's move goes some way to meeting Labour concerns. In response, a Labour source said: "This is one necessary step. We will continue to scrutinise any proposed action to ensure there is a proper legal base."
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "Britain has drafted a resolution condemning the attack by the Assad regime, and authorising all necessary measures under chapter 7 of the UN charter to protect civilians from chemical weapons.
"The resolution will be put forward at a meeting of the five permanent members of the security council later today in New York."
Government insiders admit it is unlikely that Russia and China will support the British motion, although they will not be drawn on how the government would respond if the Russians and Chinese tried to delay debate until the UN weapons inspectors' report.
A Labour source rejected suggestions that Miliband had changed his stance late on Tuesday night. He said Miliband had met Cameron and Clegg on Tuesday afternoon to be briefed by them on the Syrian situation and that after that meeting he said any government action would have to be legal.
Later, Miliband had decided to spell out in more detail what being legal meant, the source said, and Milband had then informed Cameron, in two separate calls to Downing Street, of the importance he was attaching to UN security council involvement and taking note of what was the weapons inspectors said.
In a speech on Tuesday Joe Biden, the US vice-president, said there was "no doubt" that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. He said: "Those who use chemical weapons against defenceless men, women, and children … must be held accountable."
After Cameron's conversation with Obama overnight ,Downing Street said: "Both leaders agreed that all the information available confirmed a chemical weapons attack had taken place, noting that even the Iranian president and Syrian regime had conceded this."
A No 10 spokesman went on: "They both agreed they were in no doubt that the Assad regime was responsible. Regime forces were carrying out a military operation to regain that area from the opposition at the time, and there is no evidence that the opposition has the capability to deliver such a chemical weapons attack.
"The PM confirmed that the government had not yet taken a decision on the specific nature of our response, but that it would be legal and specific to the chemical weapons attack."
Cameron chairs a meeting of the NSC at midday. At the meeting, General Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, is expected to tell ministers the UK could assist US forces with cruise missile strikes launched from submarines, warships and aircraft against targets such as command-and-control bunkers.
Coalition MPs will be under a three-line whip on Thursday, meaning that they will be under orders to back the government. Although some backbenchers have reservations about military action, most government MPs are expected to support the motion, and on Tuesday it looked as though Cameron could win Labour backing, too.
On Tuesday afternoon, Miliband said Labour would "consider supporting international action, but only on the basis that it was legal, that it was specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons and that any action contemplated had clear and achievable military goals". But Wednesday's call for UN involvement suggests Labour could decide to abstain.
A poll for YouGov in Wednesday's Sun shows that 50% of Britons are opposed to attacking Syria with long-range missiles, and that only 25% are in favour.
On the Today programme Lord West, the former Labour security minister and a former first sea lord, said he was "extremely nervous" about military intervention.
"An attack is extremely dangerous," he said. "You cannot predict what will happen. You have to ask yourself: will it actually further our global security or will it help the wellbeing of the Syrian people?
"What if he [Assad] reacts to it? Clearly, if he is actually using chemical weapons against his own people, one has to think he is slightly unhinged. What might he do? And then what do you do in response?"
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, also urged caution.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, he said: "The things which MPs will have to bear in mind in what is going to be a very, very difficult debate is, firstly: are we sure about the facts on the ground?
"Secondly: is it possible to have a carefully calibrated response, including armed force, if you are sure about the facts on the ground, that does not have unforeseeable ramifications across the whole Arab and Muslim world?"
New York Times and Twitter hit by hacker attack on Melbourne host
Pro-Assad Syrian group claims responsibility for attack mounted on Melbourne IT systems using a valid password
Oliver Milman in Melbourne
theguardian.com, Wednesday 28 August 2013 07.24 BST
Australian web hosting company Melbourne IT has been targeted in a major attack by hackers that disrupted the New York Times website and Twitter.
The Syrian Electronic Army, which supports the Assad regime in Syria, has claimed responsibility for the denial of service, or DNS, attack, which took down the New York Times website for several hours last night. The SEA also claimed that it "owned" Twitter's domain. Twitter and the New York Times both use Melbourne IT as a domain name registrar.
Theo Hnarakis, the chief executive of Melbourne IT, told Guardian Australia that the perpetrators had gained access to the company's systems via a valid user name and password.
"One of our resellers in the US was targeted and we are currently investigating how this could have happened," he said. "We are working with a variety of parties to trace the relevant ISP to see who was responsible for this.
"We have rectified this as best we can. I wish I could say how this occurred but I don't want to speculate at this stage. We will update people on this. Given there is a vulnerability, we need to make sure this doesn't happen again. But there is no evidence that the systems had been hacked at this stage."
Hnarakis, who on Wednesday announced that he would step down as chief executive after a decade in the role in a move he said was unconnected to the hack attack, said the New York Times and Twitter were now both back online and operating normally. System passwords had been changed and locked.
Four other lesser known websites were also affected, Hnarakis said. Melbourne IT holds registrations for a raft of major websites.
Twitter has said it has regained control of its domain, with the company stating that the viewing of photos was "sporadically impacted". The New York Times said that the incident was the result of a "malicious external attack" and advised its employees to be careful when sending emails.
"In terms of the sophistication of the attack, this is a big deal," Marc Frons, chief information officer for the New York Times Company, said in a statement. "It's sort of like breaking into the local savings and loan versus breaking into Fort Knox. A domain registrar should have extremely tight security because they are holding the security to hundreds, if not thousands, of websites."
Once someone has access to the domain registrar they can redirect people away from a website, as well as access email.
The Syrian Electronic Army allegedly hacked the Washington Post's website on 15 August. Managing editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said the website had fallen victim to a "sophisticated phishing attack to gain password information".
The group has also previously attacked the Guardian.
John Kerry statement on Syria polarises world leaders
Iran and Russia stand alongside Bashar al-Assad's regime while the UK, France and Australia follow Washington's lead
Paul Lewis in Washington, Martin Chulov in Beirut, Julian Borger, Nicholas Watt and agencies
theguardian.com, Tuesday 27 August 2013 14.40 BST
As the US moves towards military intervention in the Syrian conflict, world leaders have issued a string of belicose statements, with Iran and Russia standing alongside the Assad regime against a western alliance led by the US, UK, France and Australia.
In their toughest terms to date, David Cameron and US secretary of state, John Kerry, spoke of the undeniable and "asbolutely abhorrent" and use of chemical weapons in Syria. In response, the Assad regime and Iran warned that foreign military intervention in Syria would result in a conflict that would engulf the region.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Araqchi, intimated that Tehran would respond, should the west strike.
"We want to strongly warn against any military attack in Syria. There will definitely be perilous consequences for the region," Araqchi told a news conference. "These complications and consequences will not be restricted to Syria. It will engulf the whole region."
Walid al-Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, also vowed that the regime would defend itself using all means available in the event of a US-led assault.
"I challenge those who accuse our forces of using these weapons to come forward with the evidence," he told reporters at a press conference in Damascus. "We have the means to defend ourselves, and we will surprise everyone."
Shia Iran is Syria's closest ally and has accused an alliance of militant Sunni Islamists, Israel and western powers of trying to use the conflict to take over the region.
The rhetoric from the Shia camp came a day after Kerry gave the strongest indication to date that the US intends to take military action against the Assad regime. On Monday, Kerry said President Bashar al-Assad's forces had committed a moral obscenity against his own people.
"Make no mistake," Kerry said. "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapon against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."
On Tuesday, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, delivered an unequivocal call for western military action, condemning the alleged chemical attack near Damascus last week as a crime against humanity.
"A crime against humanity should not go unanswered. What needs to be done must be done. Today it is clear the international community is faced with a test," Davutoglu told reporters.
As the region braced itself for conflict, the White House said it would release an intelligence assessment about the use of chemical weapons in the coming days.
"The fact that chemical weapons were used on a widespread basis against innocent civilians, with tragic results, is undeniable," said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. "And there is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable."
He added that while Barack Obama was still considering the appropriate response, he had already concluded that the attack constituted a "horrific violation of an international norm".
Pressed on whether the US would take military action, Carney said the last time the administration determined chemical weapons had been used, "on a smaller scale", it had decided to provide opposition fighters with assistance. On that occasion, in June, the US said the CIA would begin supplying rebel groups with small arms and ammunition.
"The incident we're talking about now is of a much more grave and broader scale, and merits a response accordingly," Carney said, adding that the attack in Damscus was "obviously significantly more serious, with dramatically more heinous results"..
On Monday night the White House said Obama had spoken to Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, about "possible responses by the international community".
Australia takes the rotating chair of the UN security council from Sunday. Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday, Rudd said: "I do not believe the world can simply turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population resulting in nearly 300 deaths or more and some 3,600 people hospitalised."
David Cameron cut short his holiday in Cornwall to return to work in Downing Street on Tuesday prior to a meeting of the national security council (NSC) on Wednesday.
Russia has maintained its opposition to military action. Moscow has appeared to rule out becoming embroiled in any conflict in defence of its ally, but the diplomatic rift between Russia and the west appeared to deepen when the White House postponed a meeting with diplomats from Moscow that had been scheduled for Wednesday in The Hague.
Washington said the high-level talks, to discuss a Syria peace conference, had been put off because of ongoing consultations over the alleged chemical weapons attack. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said the postponement was a regrettable decision that the US had taken unilaterally.
Kerry said Obama was liaising with world leaders, but provided no timetable and no further indication about what form any US-led action might take.
On Monday, UN inspectors were able to access some of the alleged sites of chemical attacks in the east Ghouta region of Damascus, but had to cut their trip short after regime officials warned that they could not guarantee the inspectors' safety.
The UN team collected some biological and environmental samples but refused to accept other samples of blood and urine that had already been taken by medical workers, presumably because the UN inspectors were unable to verify their source.
Earlier in the day, two mortars had landed near the Four Seasons hotel, where the inspectors are staying, and on the way there their convoy was hit by gunfire as they crossed the buffer zone from the regime-controlled centre of Damascus to the rebel-held east of the city.
The presence of the inspectors had been a central UN demand, but their belated permission to enter the affected areas did little to calm the situation.
A buildup of military aircraft at the RAF base of Akrotiri on Cyprus suggested that planning had reached a developed stage. With Russia and China likely to block a UN resolution, the UK and US have signalled that they are prepared to act without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could legally be justified without a security council resolution under the UN's "responsibility to protect".
Earlier the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was outspoken over the necessity to act if his inspectors found evidence of use of chemical weapons. "If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone, under any circumstances, is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity," he said.
Under the terms of its mandate negotiated in the security council, the UN inspection team under the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom may determine whether chemical agents have been used, but not who has used them.
Kerry said that regardless of the outcome of the UN weapons inspections, the US had already concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons. "Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass," he said. "What is before us today is real. And it is compelling."
Chemical weapons could have been used only by Assad's forces, which had custody over the country's arsenal, Kerry said. He added that failure to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors for five days, and the regime's decision to shell the affected neighbourhoods, "destroying evidence", indicated an attempt to conceal the truth.
"That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide," he said. "That is not the behaviour of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons.
"Our sense of basic humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up."
Kerry said the decision to allow weapons inspectors to see the scene of the attack on Monday was "too late, and is too late to be credible".
"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said. "It defies any code of morality. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons, is a moral obscenity. By any standards, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable."
Kerry added that the US and its allies had gathered more information about the atrocity, and would release it in the days ahead.
In Britain, No 10 said the prime minister had clashed with Vladimir Putin over whether the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. In a telephone conversation, the Russian president reportedly said Moscow had no evidence as to whether such an attack had taken place, or who was responsible, after Cameron had said there was little doubt that the Syrian regime was responsible.
Nick Clegg has cancelled a trip to Afghanistan to allow him to attend the NSC meeting and parliament has been recalled to allow MPs to debate developments in Syria.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain shared a common position with the US and France. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have tried those other methods, the diplomatic methods, and we will continue to try those. But they have failed so far."
General Sir Nick Houghton, the chief of the UK defence staff, discussed military options with his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, and other allied military chiefs at a military summit in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The chief of defence staff has met with General Dempsey in Amman as part of pre-planned talks with the Americans and other allies to consider how the international community should best respond to the ongoing crisis in Syria.
"As you would expect, the discussions have focused on the chemical weapons attack in Damascus last Wednesday. No decisions have been taken. As we've said, we are looking at all the options."
On Monday night, British government sources downplayed expectations that a strike could be imminent. They said Britain and the US wanted to consider the findings of the UN weapons inspectors with care before deciding whether to act. Downing Street said it would consult the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, on the legalities of intervention.
It seemed unlikely, however, that the findings of the UN inspection team would heal the deep rift over Syria in the UN security council. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be "a crude violation of international law". He compared the situation to the runup to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Asked what Russia would do if missile strikes were launched, he said Russia was "not planning to go to war with anyone".
In a reminder of the potential for any military action to escalate across the Middle East, Israel warned that it would hit back if there were any Syrian reprisals after western air strikes. The Israeli minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said on Monday: "If we are under attack, we will protect ourselves and we will act decisively."
The French president, François Hollande, said it was unthinkable that the international community would fail to respond to the use of chemical weapons. He told the Parisien newspaper: "Everything will be decided this week."
• Additional reporting: Mona Mahmood, Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Constanze Letsch in Istanbul, Kate Connolly in Berlin, Alec Luhn in Moscow, and Kim Willsher in Paris
August 28, 2013
Strike on Syria Would Lead to Retaliation on Israel, Iran Warns
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
Iranian lawmakers and commanders issued stark warnings to the United States and its allies on Tuesday, saying any military strike on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel fanned by “the flames of outrage.”
The warnings came against a backdrop of rising momentum among Western governments for a military intervention in the Syria conflict over what the United States, Britain, France and others have called undeniable evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used banned chemical weapons on civilians last week, killing hundreds. Mr. Assad has accused the insurgents who are trying to topple him of using such munitions.
Iran, which itself came under chemical weapons assault by Iraq during its eight-year war in the 1980s, has been a loyal ally of the Syrian government. Iranian hard-liners often say Syria is Iran’s first trench in a potential war with hostile Western powers. Iran has blamed Israel for the conflict in Syria, saying Israel is trying to bring down Mr. Assad.
“In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential member of Parliament, as saying on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday after security meetings in Tel Aviv that, “The State of Israel is ready for any scenario. We are not part of the civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength.”
Iran has always taken the moral high ground on the issue of chemical weapons, actively opposing their use. If it turns out that Mr. Assad’s side deployed the weapons, it will be difficult for Iranian leaders to explain their support for the Syrian president to their people, analysts point out.
A potential military intervention by the United States in Syria also represents a test for Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who condemned the use of chemical weapons on his Twitter account on Monday, but stopped short of blaming either side in the Syrian conflict.
On Tuesday the new foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stressed that Iran condemned the use of chemical weapons by any group. He also said Iran had pressed the Syrian government to assist the United Nations weapons inspectors who are in the country conducting an inquiry.
There is no evidence, he said, that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government. But in remarks quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Mr. Zarif said there was some evidence that such munitions had been given to what he called Takfiri groups, referring to Syria’s insurgents. Takfiri is a disparaging term used by Muslims for extremist groups that accuse others of apostasy.
Many analysts close to Mr. Rouhani privately say that Syria is an obstacle to change inside Iran. The country’s hard-liners say any attack on Syria is in fact an act of war against Iran, and point to a support pact in which both nations have vowed to defend each other in case of a military attack by a third country.
“Naturally Iran does not want to lose Syria as a foothold in the region,” said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran.
“But in the long run a solution for Syria will mean that officials in Tehran can soften their stance towards the U.S.,” he said. “It means we would have a more open domestic atmosphere.”
Iran is widely seen as having close coordination with Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Lebanese organization that is an ideological ally. Both regard Israel as a common enemy, and Hezbollah is reported to have many rockets deployed in southern Lebanon capable of striking deep into Israeli territory.
Iran and Hezbollah are heavily engaged in helping Mr. Assad’s side in the Syria conflict. Iranian military advisers have been seen in Syria, and Iran provides military support and training to Hezbollah fighters, who have joined the Syrian armed forces in recent months to retake rebel-held areas.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meeting with visiting Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman in Tehran on Monday, predicted the Syrian conflict would escalate far beyond its borders if other regional nations continued to aid the Syrian opposition.
“Their supporters must know that this fire will finally engulf them as well,” Mr. Khamenei said, according to the Mehr news agency.
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
August 27, 2013
Reports of Syria Chemical Attack Spur Question: Why?
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As President Bashar al-Assad of Syria faces the increasing likelihood of an American-led missile strike, his detractors and defenders alike are asking, Why would he launch a deadly chemical attack on a scale not yet seen in his country’s civil war — as American and allied officials assert his loyalists did last week — when he seemed to be holding his own in the stalemated conflict, and just as international weapons inspectors arrived in the country?
Mr. Assad’s allies have tried to cast doubt on the allegations by saying there would have been no logical benefit for his government in launching the attack. And even some of those advocating a military response have expressed puzzlement over why he would take one of the few actions that could push a reluctant American government to respond.
If the Syrian government is responsible for the attack, which it denies, the reasons for it are known only to Mr. Assad’s inner circle. But military analysts say that he and his loyalists may have had ample reasons that made sense to them: further terrorizing rebel supporters, projecting confidence by defying the international community, or simply wanting to raise the military pressure on some of the most stubborn and strategic pockets of rebel fighters and their backers.
“What makes military and strategic sense to Assad may not make military and strategic sense to us,” said Emile Hokayem, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Assad is fighting his own fight on his terms and on the timing of his choosing. He may have made a mistake this time — perhaps he didn’t mean to kill that many, or assumed the international community had become less sensitive — but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t make sense from his perspective.”
The attack, which killed hundreds of people in heavily bombarded suburbs east and southwest of Damascus, the capital, appears to have been by far the most widespread and deadliest use of chemical weapons in Syria, where toxic gases have been used in several smaller attacks over the past year, with each side accusing the other of using the internationally banned weapons.
Yet in some ways, the episode may represent more of a continuity with the conduct of this war than a departure from it. During two and a half years of conflict, Mr. Assad has slowly increased the intensity of attacks on civilian neighborhoods where rebels have found support. Mr. Hokayem calls it a strategy of “gradual escalation and desensitization” of the public in Syria and abroad.
Government forces have used blunt and imprecise conventional weapons, firing Scud missiles and unleashing artillery bombardments and airstrikes on neighborhoods, in attacks that seem aimed more at sowing fear and punishing populations than at specific tactical gains. While last week’s killings appear to have been the largest mass slaughter of the war, conventional weapons have killed many times more people than chemicals.
Even after Western governments declared that Syrian government forces had used banned chemical weapons like the nerve agent sarin, crossing what President Obama had once called a “red line,” the attacks provoked little visible response.
And in recent weeks, with the United States and its allies increasingly queasy about Islamic extremists among Mr. Assad’s fractious opponents and the prospect that his fall would bring even greater chaos to the country and the region, Mr. Assad could watch Egypt’s generals preside over the killing of more than 1,000 Islamist protesters, also with few international repercussions.
Some analysts say that a growing sense of impunity may have led Mr. Assad to believe that he could get away with an attack much larger than past ones. Others say they suspect that he intended only an incremental increase in the use of chemicals and that a tactical error led to last week’s much higher death toll, and to the pictures of children’s bodies shrouded in white that provoked a new level of international outrage.
On the eve of last Wednesday’s attack, Mr. Assad’s forces had consolidated gains around the central city of Homs, aiming to secure the heavily populated corridor running from Damascus through the government’s coastal strongholds to the divided northern city of Aleppo. But the capital remained ringed by restive suburbs where by some estimates half the population stayed despite relentless shelling, and where the government has been unable to decisively dislodge rebels.
Yezid Sayigh, an analyst of Arab militaries at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said government forces have used chemical weapons in small amounts several times to incapacitate fighters on front lines as it tries to take specific areas, and could have been trying to do so on a somewhat larger scale in last week’s attack.
The government, Mr. Sayigh said, may also have sought to use the psychological effect of chemical weapons to frighten away residents who had stayed until then, to deny rebels cover and support and to add new refugee flows to those already burdening Syria’s neighbors.
“They clearly felt a need to use chemical weapons quite a while ago and were able to get away with that, bluntly, as long as they kept it within certain limits,” he said. “Maybe they felt they needed to achieve significant progress in the Damascus area, and loosened the rules of engagement.”
Although it might seem strange to use chemical weapons during a visit by United Nations weapons inspectors, the deterrent effect of international observers has been overestimated in the past, said Mr. Hokayem of the strategic studies institute, noting that some of the first large-scale massacres in the conflict took place during a visit by United Nations observers.
Analysts said the possibility that the attack was by a rogue commander seemed remote, as did the idea that the attack was desperate and irrational.
The security forces have remained relatively cohesive and organized. The government has scaled back its military goals, recognizing that it cannot fight everywhere at once, but it displays a greater ability than the rebels to systematically make decisions about allocating resources and weapons to areas it considers important at a particular time.
Still, the government is not monolithic. There are different power centers within its security forces, and some analysts have speculated that Mr. Assad’s brother Maher, the leader of the feared Republican Guard, could have given the order, or that it was carried out by irregular forces. Evidence from videos and witnesses suggested that the toxic substances in last week’s attack were delivered by improvised tube-launched missiles that could be used by smaller, more mobile units than were thought to be needed for chemical weapons.
Syria’s allies Russia and Iran have said the attack was carried out by rebels, who produce many homemade weapons. But the government has also used seemingly improvised weapons in conjunction with standard ones, as when its forces dropped barrel bombs from helicopters.
Mr. Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center noted that the Syrian government was accused of similar miscalculations in the past, like taking a tacit or active role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005 — an event that led to Syria’s withdrawal of its occupying forces from Lebanon under pressure.
“They are used to acting in blunt ways,” he said. “Now and then they miscalculate.”
C. J. Chivers contributed reporting from the United States.