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United States and Britain prepare for strikes on Syria despite Russia warning

BY OLIVER WRIGHT

Russia warned Britain and America yesterday that they would be in “grave violation of international law” if they carried out air strikes against the Syrian regime without the approval of the United Nations.

Amid growing concern at home  and abroad about the legitimacy and wisdom of the UK participating in an attack on the Assad regime without UN authorisation, the Government’s most senior law officer will be asked to justify the Britain’s participation in strikes at a meeting of the National Security Council tomorrow.

 

However, there were no signs of Downing Street backing off from its  intention to join America in the use of military force. A Downing Street  source said they still expected action within two weeks while a spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said he was also fully behind a “proportionate” response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

 

Last night, Mr Cameron spoke to the Russian President Vladimir Putin for 20 minutes in a call which Downing Street described as “business-like”. Mr Putin reportedly told Mr Cameron that UN weapons inspectors must be given time to analyse properly the cause of the attack. However, he did not repeat comments made earlier by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, that any unilateral action would be illegal.

 

Comments by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, last night calling the evidence against the Syrian regime  “undeniable”, left little doubt that the Washington was preparing the ground for some kind of punitive action. A senior member of the US Senate, Bob Corker, said a US attack against Syria was “imminent”, though there was no way to verify that. “I don’t think there’s any question in the administration’s mind that chemical warfare has been used and that when we’re involved,  it’s surgical, proportional to what has occurred,” he said.

 

On a visit to Indonesia, the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, indicated that Washington was not willing to act alone or outside the “framework of a legal justification”. Taking a much harder tone, Mr Kerry said it was not the job of UN inspectors to determine who had unleashed the weapons, firmly  rejecting the regime’s denials of responsibility for the “cowardly crime”.

 

Mr Cameron will return to Downing Street from his holiday in Cornwall this morning and is expected to make a decision on whether to recall Parliament. The move is seen as increasingly likely after a succession of Tory MPs made  it clear they expected to be consulted ahead of any action.

 

The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston said there was no threat to UK national security and Parliament should be consulted to act as a brake on an escalation of the situation. “I sense that we are on a headlong rush into escalating this conflict and I think Parliament can act as a natural brake to that,” she said.

 

Without a UN mandate for action – which would be impossible to achieve because of Russian and Chinese  opposition – the legal mandate for war would likely rest either on the “right to protect” civilians, as happened when Nato bombarded Serbia in 1999, or the need to prevent breaches of international conventions outlawing the use of chemical weapons.

 

The Independent understands that the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has been asked by Mr Cameron to review the legal situation and report to the NSC at its meeting tomorrow.

 

However, the Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared to suggest that the Government did not see any significant legal obstacles to action. He told the BBC: “The United Nations Security Council has not shouldered its responsibilities on Syria otherwise there would have been a better chance of bringing this conflict to an end a long time ago.

 

“So, is it possible to act on chemical weapons, is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council? I would argue, yes it is. Otherwise, of course, it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes and I don’t think that is an acceptable situation.

 

“It is possible to take action based on great humanitarian need and humanitarian distress, it’s possible to do that under many different scenarios. But anything we propose to do on this, the strong response that we’ve talked about, whatever form that takes, will be in accordance with international law.”

Syria, the military view


A short sharp series of air strikes is the West’s likely involvement in this vicious civil war

BY KIM SENGUPTA

What lay behind the massacre of 1,300 people, the worst atrocity so far in Syria’s vicious civil war, is yet to be fully uncovered. But Western powers have declared they are convinced that Basher al-Assad’s forces were responsible and military intervention now seems increasingly likely.

 

General Martin Dempsey, the head of the US military, met his counterparts in allied states, including Britain’s General Sir Nick Houghton, at the Jordanian capital Amman, yesterday in what was seen as putting the final touches for a campaign if the go ahead is given by Barack Obama.

 

The reality on the ground, and in this case especially the air, is that no mission will be undertaken without Washington’s say-so. Britain and France may have been the most voluble advocates of confronting the Damascus regime, but it will be American Tomahawk missiles, B-2 bombers and F-16s that will take the lead role in inflicting punishment on the regime for supposedly crossing the US President’s “red line” on WMDs.

 

The scale and scope of the operation would depend on which of the various contingency plans put forward would be chosen. What gives the unfolding scenario an additional twist is that General Dempsey, and Sir Nick’s immediate predecessor, General Sir David Richards, had repeatedly urged caution against involvement in the two and half year old conflict. The French high command, relieved that their intervention in Mali has been relatively pretty successful, are also wary of entanglement in Syria.

 

In meetings with politicians, the commanders have pointed out that the strife is now deeply sectarian and the presence and power of al-Qa’ida affiliates in the ranks of the opposition adds hugely to the complications. General Dempsey, in his latest statement on the issue, said last week that air strikes “would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict”.

 

But, with political and military leaders at least in agreement that there must not be Western boots on Syrian ground (with the possible exception of special forces) an air war is the likely scenario. And despite General Dempsey’s warning about being “committed decisively”, defence sources point towards an extremely sharp, but relatively short series of assaults.

 

The US has currently got four warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The USS Mahan, USS Barry, USS Gravely and USS Ramage between them carry around 430 Tomahawk Block III missiles, costing around £300,000 each, with a range of up to 1,500 miles.

 

The USAF would also be able to carry out strikes using B-2 stealth bombers based in Missouri, which would be able to reach targets in the Middle East with just one refuel with each aircraft carrying 40,000lbs of ordnance. In addition, the Americans have the option of using a variety of fighter-bombers including F-16s from their bases in the region.

 

Despite the recent deep cuts in the defence budget, the UK is in a position to take part in the mission with Trafalgar-class submarines armed with Tomahawks and Tornados from RAF Marnham in Norfolk, with refuelling, carrying Storm Shadow missiles with a range of 150 miles. The French can provide what the UK currently cannot, an aircraft-carrier. Following a major refit, the Charles de Gaulle is now operational at Toulon. The French also have Rafale and Mirage jets stationed in the UAE.

 

The most obvious targets would  be the Syrian regime’s chemical complexes. There are, it is believed, chemical storage facilities in Damascus, nearby Dumayr, Palmyra and Homs, Masyat, north of Aleppo and Latakia on the coast.

 

Production plants are said to be near Damascus, Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

 

An air campaign would need to take out the regimes own air capabilities. There are large bases for airplanes in Damascus, Dumayr and Homs and missile launching sites at Al Safrah and Al Kibar.

 

Other potential targets could include the155th Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian Army blamed for last week’s Ghouta attack, commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher as well as units of the Shabia, Alawite militia, which have been accused of extensive human rights abuse.

 

The great danger is “mission creep”; but with the military commanders so wary about getting sucked into the Syrian quagmire that, according to defence sources, it is unlikely to happen on this occasion.

 

Samples from victims could fail to show sarin gas evidence

BY STEVE CONNOR

It will be difficult – but not impossible – to detect the chemical breakdown products of any nerve agents that may have been used in the Damascus attack, but access to the victims could be critical in proving the illicit use of chemical weapons.

Sarin, the most likely nerve agent to be used in a chemical attack, is a small molecule that quickly breaks down within the human body and in the environment after it is released. However, a minuscule amount of breakdown product can persist in the victims’ blood for between 16 and 26 days.

The UN weapons inspectors will be seeking to take blood samples from living victims which they will take away for analysis in a relatively sophisticated setting, notably a laboratory with gas or liquid mass spectrometers that can detect the smallest amounts of specific chemicals.

Even so, Japanese scientists who analysed blood samples of sarin victims in the Matsumoto and Tokyo subway attacks of 1994 and 1995, failed to find breakdown products in some of the individuals who were known to be exposed to the lethal agent. So there is always a chance that the blood samples could give a negative result, even with genuine exposure to sarin.

Nevertheless, the UN scientists will be looking for the presence of sarin “adducts”, the compounds resulting from the binding of biological molecules to the smaller breakdown chemicals of the sarin molecule – notably isopropyl methylphosphonic acid (IMPA).

Experts believe that the presence of IMPA in the blood samples of victims will be incontrovertible evidence, if not proof, that sarin has been used. Such biochemical evidence will of course bolster any other chemical or physical evidence gleaned from the inspection of the site of the attack, along with the visual evidence from the many amateur videos taken of the victims within hours of the attack.

If the Syrian authorities were indeed playing for time in delaying its permission for the inspectors to visit the site and the victims – in the hope of the evidence being dissipated or destroyed – then they probably hadn’t bargained on the power of modern analytical chemistry to detect the smallest quantities of the unique breakdown products of the sarin nerve agent.

Tissue samples taken from the victims of previous attacks have already revealed the use of sarin according to French chemical weapons experts and Britain’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. However, these results did not indicate who had deployed the sarin and on what sort of scale.

The difference with the latest analysis is that UN inspectors are collecting and verifying the samples themselves, and they are in a much better position to judge the scale of the attack – and, possibly, who was responsible.

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