U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about reports of chemical weapons attack in Syria

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Yahoo! News
U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about reports of chemical weapons attack in Syria

The United States called Wednesday for a United Nations investigation into horrific reports that Syria’s government used chemical weapons in a deadly attack on opponents of Bashar Assad, including women and children. Washington also pushed for urgent U.N. Security Council talks on the alleged incident.

“The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.

Earnest did not confirm reports from anti-Assad activists that chemical weapons had been used but said the United States was “working urgently to gather additional information.”

“Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation,” the spokesman said.

Earnest said a team of U.N. investigators — already in Syria to look into previous allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime — was prepared, qualified and empowered to carry out such a probe.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.

“We have also called for urgent consultations in the U.N. Security Council to discuss these allegations and to call for the Syrian government to provide immediate access to the U.N. investigative team,” he said.

“For the U.N.’s efforts to be credible, they must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government,” Earnest said.

“The United States strongly condemns any and all use of chemical weapons,” he declared. “Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.”

Earnest's statement came after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against an escalating U.S. military role in Syria's civil war.

Dempsey, the country’s top uniformed military commander, also warned against greater U.S. military involvement because while “we can destroy the Syrian air force,” such a step would “escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict."

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

If confirmed, and if the death toll cited by Assad foes is accurate, it could be the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s government killed as many as 5,000 Iraqi Kurds with poison gas in the city of Halabja in 1988.