- Obama talks tough, shows no rush to act on Syria chemical arms evidence
- "Evidence" of Syria chemical weapons use not up to U.N. standard
- Islamist says Egypt should press on with judge reforms
Posted: 26 Apr 2013 06:08 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama warned Syria on Friday that its use of chemical weapons would be a "game changer" for the United States but made clear he was in no rush to intervene in the civil war there on the basis of evidence he said was still preliminary.
Speaking a day after the disclosure of U.S. intelligence that Syria had likely used chemical weapons against its own people, Obama talked tough while calling for patience as he sought to fend off pressure for a swift response against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law," Obama told reporters at the White House as he began talks with Jordan's King Abdullah.
"That is going to be a game changer," he said. But Obama stopped short of declaring that Assad had crossed "a red line" and described the U.S. intelligence evaluations as "a preliminary assessment."
While some more hawkish lawmakers have called for a U.S. military response and for the arming of anti-Assad rebels, several leading congressional voices urged a calmer approach after Secretary of State John Kerry briefed them.
"This is not Libya," said Nancy Pelosi, the senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, referring to the relative ease with which a NATO bombing campaign helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. "The Syrians have anti-aircraft capability that makes going in there much more challenging."
U.S. officials said on Thursday the intelligence community believes with varying degrees of confidence that Assad's forces used the nerve agent sarin on a small scale against rebel fighters.
Obama had warned earlier that deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would trigger unspecified consequences, widely interpreted to include possible U.S. military action.
Aides have insisted that the Democratic president will need all the facts before he deciding on action, making clear it is mindful of the lessons of the start of the Iraq war more than a decade ago.
Then, the Republican administration of President George W. Bush used inaccurate intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist.
Syria denies using chemical weapons in the two-year-old conflict in which more than 70,000 people have been killed.
NO 'AIRTIGHT CASE' SO FAR
Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian opposition's elected interim prime minister, said in an interview with CBS television that the opposition needed a no-fly zone, surgical air strikes, and the establishment of safe passages from the U.S. government so aid could be delivered to the Syrian people more effectively.
"We are certain that this regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people," he said.
"We are not asking for boots on the ground. We are not asking for any U.S. soldiers or any British soldiers or any foreign soldiers to come in and put their lives at risk."
U.S. officials said the evaluation that Syria probably used chemical weapons was based in part on "physiological" samples but have refused to say exactly where they came from or who supplied the material.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the evidence so far of Syrian chemical weapons use was not an "airtight case" and declined to set a deadline for corroborating reports.
Obama and his aides also appeared intent on deflecting pressure for swift action by stressing the need for a comprehensive U.N. investigation on the ground in Syria - something Assad has blocked from going forward.
The United States has resisted being dragged militarily into Syria's conflict and is providing only non-lethal aid to rebels trying to overthrow Assad. Washington is worried that weapons supplied to the rebels could end up in the hands of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
But acknowledgment of the U.S. intelligence assessment appeared to move the United States closer - at least rhetorically - to some sort of action in Syria, military or otherwise.
Carney said Obama would consider a range of options, should it be determined that Syria has used chemical weapons.
"It's important to remember that there are options available to a commander in chief in a situation like this that include but are not exclusive to that option," he said.
Some U.S. experts warn that Obama risks further emboldening Assad if he acts too slowly or not all, but the White House must also keep in mind polls showing most Americans, weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are against new military entanglements.
As a result, Obama is unlikely to turn to military options quickly or without allies joining him.
Those options vary from limited one-off missile strikes, perhaps one of the least complicated scenarios, to more bold operations like carving out no-fly, "safe zones." One grim scenario envisions sending tens of thousands of U.S. forces to help secure the chemical weapons.
LITTLE CHANCE SEEN FOR DIPLOMACY
Current and former U.S. officials see little chance of achieving success through the two main diplomatic options: persuading Russia to increase pressure on Syria at the U.N. Security Council, or pressuring Assad to negotiate his own departure.
"There is no evidence of any interest on the part of Assad, who seems to think Iran and Hezbollah and Russia can pull his chestnuts out of the fire," said Fred Hof, who was a top State Department official working on Syria until September.
The Obama administration's sudden disclosure of its chemical weapons findings came just two days after it played down an Israeli assessment that there had been repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria. France and Britain have also concluded that evidence suggests chemical arms have been used.
It is unclear why the Obama administration changed its mind so quickly this week.
Weapons inspectors will determine whether banned chemical agents were used only if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which works with the United Nations on inspections.
Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for a U.N. team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence, the organization said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Mark Felsenthal, Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle, Phil Stewart, Xavier Briand and Peter Apps in Washington and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 26 Apr 2013 04:52 PM PDT
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for a U.N. team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence.
Weapons inspectors will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used in the two-year-old conflict if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which works with the United Nations on inspections.
That type of evidence, needed to show definitively if banned chemicals were found, has not been presented by governments and intelligence agencies accusing Syria of using chemical weapons against insurgents.
"This is the only basis on which the OPCW would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons have been used," said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Hague-based OPCW.
With Syria blocking the U.N. mission, it is unlikely they will gain that type of access any time soon.
The head of the U.N. inspection mission, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, will meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Monday.
The United Nations wrote to the Syrian government again on Thursday to push for unconditional and unfettered access for the U.N. investigators, Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Friday.
"The Secretary-General urges the Syrian government to respond swiftly and favourably so that this mission can carry out its work in Syria," Nesirky said. "You need to be able to go into Syria to be able to do that investigation properly."
"In the meantime the members of that team have been collating and analyzing the evidence and information that is available to date from outside," he said, adding that there was a concern "about the degradation of evidence" within Syria.
The White House on Thursday said the U.S. intelligence community has assessed with varying degrees of confidence that the chemical agent sarin was used by forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad. But it noted that "the chain of custody is not clear."
QUESTIONS AROUND 'PHYSIOLOGICAL' SAMPLES
The Israeli military this week suggested Syrian forces used sarin and showed reporters pictures of a body with symptoms indicating the nerve gas was the cause of death.
Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons control, said, "There is a limit to what you can extract from photograph evidence alone. What you really need is to get information from on the ground, to gather physical evidence and to talk to witnesses as well as medical staff who treated victims."
Sarin is a fast-acting nerve agent that was originally developed in 1938 in Germany as a pesticide. It is a clear, colourless, tasteless and odourless liquid that can evaporate quickly into a gas and spread into the environment, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat.
Sean Kaufman of the Centre for Public Health Preparedness and Research at Emory University, a former biodefense expert for the CDC, said people who have been exposed to sarin most typically die or recover fully. Testing for sarin, he said, requires access to the environment where the nerve agent was used or the clothing of someone who was exposed.
The White House, which has called the use of chemicals weapons in Syria a "red line" for possible military intervention, said its assessment was partly based on "physiological" samples. But a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity declined to detail the evidence. It is unclear who supplied it.
Even if samples were made available to the OPCW by those making the assertions, the organisation could not use them.
"The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don't gather in the field because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity," said Luhan.
Established to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of toxic agents in warfare, the OPCW has exhaustive rules on how inspectors collect and handle evidence, starting with the sealing of a site like a crime scene.
Multiple samples must be taken and there need to be "blank" samples from unexposed matter and tissue, to set a baseline against which levels of contamination could be determined.
The samples would be split, sealed and flown in dark, cooled air transports to up to three certified laboratories, including one at the OPCW's headquarters in The Hague.
A team of 15 experts, put together in response to a request from the U.N. Secretary General to investigate the claims, has been on standby in Cyprus for nearly three weeks.
Headed by Sellstrom, it includes analytical chemists and World Health Organisation experts on the medical effects of exposure to toxins.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Giles Elgood, Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)
Factbox - What is the chemical weapon sarin?
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 26 Apr 2013 04:06 PM PDT
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament must move quickly to adopt judicial reforms that have sparked a revolt by judges, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm argued on Friday.
The proposed reforms, which would get rid of more than 3,000 judges by lowering the retirement age, have widened the rift between President Mohamed Mursi's government and a judiciary seen by its critics as a last bastion of the old regime that was toppled in the 2011 revolution.
Essam el-Erian, a member of parliament from the Freedom and Justice Party which dominates the legislature, said in a Facebook post that passage of a new law defining the powers of the judiciary should not be delayed.
He said the upper house had the legal authority to do this - something the opposition disputes. The lower chamber was dissolved by court ruling last year and Mursi has said new elections could be held in October.
More than two years after the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is still beset by political turmoil and street violence has contributed to a severe economic crisis by scaring off tourists and foreign investors.
Dozens of masked young men threw petrol bombs and stones in an attempt to break into Mursi's palace in Cairo late on Friday, state news agency MENA reported.
It said members of the black-clad anti-government group known as the Black Bloc were present but that the police fired tear gas to force the small group to disperse. A car was set on fire outside the palace, footage from satellite news channel Al Jazeera's Egypt station showed.
A heavy police presence reinforced the palace's perimeter after nightfall. The police used trucks to block off streets near the palace, preventing protesters from approaching.
Twelve people were arrested on Friday night in connection with the clashes, MENA reported, citing an unnamed security source.
Outside the High Court, which was the scene of clashes last week between Islamist protesters and their opponents, a small crowd of demonstrators gathered earlier on Friday to chant for the judiciary's independence. Islamist parties postponed their latest round of protests calling for it to be purged.
A senior official of Egypt's biggest hardline Islamist party on Friday rejected the reforms under consideration. Abdullah Badran of the Nour Party wrote on Facebook that the constitution required greater consultation with the judiciary.
Separately, a judge who served as the head of the embattled constitution-drafting body said reforms should be postponed until after a new parliament is elected, MENA reported.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Sandra Maler)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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