Trump puts wind up Syria

Assad cruising for a bruising after ‘gas’ attack

US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, US April 9, 2018.
US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, US April 9, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Syria's regime was bracing for Western action yesterday after US President Donald Trump vowed to respond quickly and forcefully to an alleged chemical attack that has sparked international outrage.

The US, France, and Britain have ramped up pressure on Syria’s government by pledging strong reactions to alleged toxic gas use against Douma, the last town still held by rebels in their one-time bastion Eastern Ghouta.

France yesterday warned it would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if evidence emerged that the red line of chemical weapons had been crossed in Douma.

In Damascus, government forces were on high alert in anticipation of a potential Western military strike, according to a war monitor.

“At midnight, the army command put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for a period of 72 hours,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Units were reinforcing positions and preparing themselves for rapid deployment, but troops had not been transferred or withdrawn, according to the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources in Syria for its information.

Syrian regime forces have categorically denied accusations of using toxic gas including sarin and chlorine in the country’s brutal seven-year war.

On Monday, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari accused Western powers of staging such attacks to justify military action against Damascus.

Jaafari said Washington, Paris, and others were falsely accusing his government of chemical use “in order to pave the way for an attack on Syria like the US and Britain’s criminal aggression against Iraq in 2003”.

Russia’s ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said: “From what we hear now, I am afraid they are looking for a military option, which is very, very dangerous.”

First responders in Douma say more than 40 people died on Saturday after the suspected poison gas attack, which left people wheezing, with discoloured skin, and foaming at the mouth.

Douma has faced weeks of regime bombardment and is cut off by the regime, making it extremely difficult for journalists to independently verify the claims.

Reaching sources inside the town is complicated by their patchy access to lines of communication.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres called yesterday for international investigators to have unfettered access after an alleged chemical attack.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be granted full access, without any restrictions or impediments to perform its activities, he said.

Syria’s government said yesterday the UN chemical watchdog could visit the town, state media reported. SANA said the foreign ministry had sent a formal invitation to the OPCW to send a team from its fact-finding mission to visit Douma and investigate the claims.

The OPCW said it was already investigating but so far only a preliminary analysis had taken place.

Russia was planning to propose its own transparent and honest probe at a UN Security Council meeting.

It said the OPCW’s experts could be involved, and that Syrian troops would ensure their safety.

Moscow, which has backed the Syrian regime’s assault on Eastern Ghouta, has said its own investigators had already entered Douma and found no trace of chemical use.

“Fabrications and false stories are being used to find some pretext for the use of military force,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

The US has called for the UN to set up a probe to identify who carried out the alleged gas attack, but Russia could veto if a vote takes place.

US ambassador Nikki Haley said the world must see justice done, while Trump warned the perpetrators there would be a big price to pay.

A third deal was reached for Douma just hours after the reported chemical attack, and a 65-bus convoy of rebels and civilians was evacuated from the town overnight.

The buses, carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule, reached opposition areas in the northwest near Aleppo yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Hundreds more people began to leave Douma yesterday and the progovernment Watan newspaper said about 40 000 militants and their families were due to leave in all, as the UN refugee agency voiced alarm at spiralling new displacement.

As part of the surrender deal, the Jaish al-Islam group that had controlled the town released scores of people it had been holding.