Bashar Assad, Syrian President, Claims Government Troops Did Not Use Chemical Weapons (PHOTOS/VIDEO)
By LEE KEATH and ZEINA KARAM
08/26/13 09:25 PM ET EDT
Syrian President Bashar Assad told Russia's Izvestia daily
that his troops did not use chemical weapons in an attack on rebel-held
suburb in a Damascus suburb last week where hundreds of people died.
DAMASCUS, Syria — U.N. experts collected samples and
testimony from Syrian doctors and victims of an alleged chemical weapons
attack Monday following a treacherous journey through government and
rebel-held territory, where their convoy was hit by snipers.
As U.S. officials said there was very little doubt that Syria used
chemical weapons and Western powers stepped up calls for swift military
action, President Bashar Assad's government vowed to defend itself
against any international attack, warning that such an intervention
would ignite turmoil across the region.
It also would bring the U.S. closer to a conflict that has
killed more than 100,000 people since Assad cracked down on Arab
Spring-inspired protesters in March 2011.
Syria's civil war has been increasingly defined by sectarian killings
between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad's regime, dominated by
Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
It would essentially pit the U.S. and regional allies Saudi Arabia,
Turkey and Qatar in a proxy war against Iran, which is providing weapons
to the Syrian government's counterinsurgency, along with Hezbollah, the
militant Lebanese group that also has aided Assad's forces militarily.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad told The Associated Press in an
interview in Damascus that such an attack would trigger "chaos in the
"If individual countries want to pursue aggressive and adventurous
policies, the natural answer ... would be that Syria, which has been
fighting against terrorism for almost three years, will also defend
itself against any international attack," he added.
Assad told a Russian newspaper that any military campaign against his country was destined to fail.
It's also unclear what U.S. action would mean for relations with
Russia, which warned Monday against the use of force not sanctioned by
the U.N. Security Council, calling it "a crude violation of
for some sort of international military response was likely to grow if
it is confirmed that Assad's regime was responsible for the Aug. 21
attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of
people. The group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said chemical weapons were used in
Syria and he accused Assad's regime of destroying evidence. He said the
U.S. has additional information about the attack and will make it
public in the days ahead.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and
children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral
obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and – despite the excuses
and equivocations that some have manufactured – it is undeniable," said
Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack.
"This international norm cannot be violated without consequences," he said.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack, blaming the rebels
instead, and has authorized a U.N. team of experts currently in Syria to
investigate, although the U.S. said it was a step that came "too late
to be credible."
Snipers opened fire on the U.N. convoy, hitting one of the vehicles
carrying a team on its way to investigate the Aug. 21 incident.
Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,
said one of the U.N. vehicles was "deliberately shot at multiple times"
in the buffer zone between rebel- and government-controlled territory,
adding that the team was safe.
Nesirky said the car was "no longer serviceable" after the shooting,
forcing the team to return to a government checkpoint to replace the
vehicle. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the tires and windshield were
hit, but the window was not shattered, and the team plans to go out
again Tuesday to do more sampling.
Ban said he had instructed U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane in
Damascus "to register a strong complaint" with both the Syrian
government and opposition representatives for the convoy attack.
The Syrian government said its forces provided security for the team
until they reached a position controlled by the rebels, where the
government claimed the sniper attack occurred. The main Syrian
opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said members
of a pro-government militia known as the Popular Committees fired at the
U.N. team to prevent them from going in.
The rebel coalition said the shots occurred near the final checkpoint
between rebel and regime-controlled areas, calling it an attempt "to
intimidate the U.N. team and prevent it from discovering the truth about
Assad's chemical weapons attack against civilians."
Activists said the inspectors eventually arrived in Moadamiyeh, a
western suburb of Damascus and one of the areas where the alleged
chemical attack occurred.
Wassim al-Ahmad, a member of the Moadamiyeh local council, said five
U.N. investigators spent three hours at a makeshift hospital meeting
with doctors and victims still suffering symptoms from the alleged
chemical attack, taking blood, hair and tissue samples before returning
"They are late. They came six days late," said al-Ahmad, referring to
the time it took the U.N. team to arrive. "All the people have already
been buried," he added via Skype, after returning from the hospital
where he witnessed the U.N. visit.
The sounds of explosions could be heard in the background. Al-Ahmad
said heavy shelling resumed as soon as the U.N. experts left the area
following a lull.
In videos uploaded by the Moadamiyeh media office, U.N. inspectors in
blue helmets and body armor were seen interviewing hospital patients.
"After the shells landed, I went downstairs and ... felt dizzy. I
fell down, nauseous. Everything became distorted," one bearded man was
seen telling the U.N. official.
One video showed a man lying on a stretcher in the presence of U.N.
experts and doctors in the room, his legs twitching uncontrollably. In
another, a U.N. expert was seen conducting tests on a missile.
The U.S., France, Britain and Israel said a military response against
the Syrian regime should be an option. Germany suggested for the first
time it may support the use of force if a chemical weapons attack is
"The suspected large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo even in
this Syrian conflict that has been so full of cruelty," according to
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters after
meeting with his Indonesian counterpart, said the Obama administration
"is considering all different options," and that "if there is any action
taken, it will be in concert with the international community and
within the framework of a legal justification."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said "all the options are
open. The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing."
Russia said Western nations calling for military action have no proof the Syrian government was behind any chemical attacks.
Syrian activists and opposition leaders have said that between 322 and 1,300 people were killed in the alleged chemical attack.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the countries calling for
military action have assumed the role of "both investigators and the
U.N. Security Council" in probing the incident.
Lavrov likened the situation in Syria to the period before the
U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said "the use of force without a
sanction of the U.N. Security Council is a crude violation of the
Assad told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that accusations his troops used chemicals were "politically motivated."
"This is nonsense," Assad was quoted as saying. "First they level the
accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence."
Assad said attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not
make sense for the government, because there was no clear front line
between regime and rebel forces.
"How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of
mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?" he asked.
Commenting on a possible strike by the U.S., Assad said: "They can
start a war but they will not know where it will spread or how it will
end. Superpowers can launch wars but they cannot win them."
Asked what the U.S. would face in any intervention, Assad answered:
"What it suffered in all its wars from Vietnam until now: Failure."