France’s foreign minister is raising the possibility of the use of force in Syria if it’s proven that Bashir Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.
Syrian government forces pressed on with a military offensive in eastern Damascus on Thursday, bombing rebel-held suburbs where the opposition said the regime had killed over 100 people the day before in a chemical weapons attack.
The government has denied allegations it used chemical weapons in artillery barrages on the area known as eastern Ghouta on Wednesday as “absolutely baseless.”
The United States, Britain and France have demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in Syria be granted immediate access to investigate the site.
Syrian opposition figures and activists have reported widely varying death tolls from Wednesday’s attack, from 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a moment, Army Private Bradley Manning wants to serve a 35-year prison term as a woman.
HOBSON: But first the United Nations Security Council is calling for immediate action to investigate the latest claims by Syrian activists that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against civilians. Videos released yesterday show victims of alleged poison gas attacks in a suburb of Damascus. Syrian opposition say hundreds of people were killed.
NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us from Washington to talk about the latest in this story. Michele, welcome.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, tell us first, what came out of the meeting, the U.N. Security Council emergency meeting last night to discuss these allegations?
KELEMEN: Not much, to be honest. The ambassador from Argentina, who is the current council president, came out and said that council members are concerned about the allegations, that there is a general sense that there needs to be clarity about what happened in Syria. She says all of the council members agree that any use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstance is a violation of international law.
But while she says they're calling for a prompt investigation and a cessation of hostilities, they didn't go further and make any demands of the Syrian government on this. You know, there's a U.N. team on the ground in Syria right now, a chemical weapons - of chemical weapons inspectors, but their mandate is quite limited.
HOBSON: Well, what could the U.N. actually do if it wanted to do something?
KELEMEN: Well, for one thing they can make a demand of the Syrian government to make sure that this team has access to the site of this alleged chemical weapons attack and have access to the witnesses. And that's what the U.S. and others have been trying to do, to get the Security Council to at least make a statement demanding that. They didn't go as far as that last night.
HOBSON: And what about Russia and China? They have not always been on the same page as the U.S. on this issue.
KELEMEN: That's right, and, you know, the fact that they didn't even agree on a very strong statement is quite telling. You know, Russia has always shielded Bashar al-Assad's regime diplomatically at the U.N. and elsewhere, and the Russians have cast doubts about these latest allegations.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, in fact, suggested that this was a pre-planned provocation by the rebels. He said that - he seemed to be suggesting that they staged this to provoke an international reaction and to undermine planned peace talks. Remember, Jeremy, the U.S. and Russia had agreed months ago that they would push the Assad regime and the opposition into talks about a transitional government.
Russia claims that they've done their part, and they're waiting for the U.S. to deliver the rebels to the table. But, you know, there doesn't seem to be much of a chance for that with all of this violence, the death toll mounting and now these chemical weapons allegations.
HOBSON: It seems the strongest response is coming from France, which called for force.
KELEMEN: All along, France and the U.K. have been strong voices in this debate on Syria. And given the nature of these latest allegations, we're certainly going to hear a lot of moral outrage. But unless France and others are willing to do something without the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, I'm not sure we're going to see much of a change.
The main thing everyone should want is to make sure this U.N. team of inspectors gets to look into these allegations. If they don't, the U.N., the international response, everyone really looks weak, and that's a case that the U.S. and others are going to have to make to Russia in the days ahead.
HOBSON: Meanwhile in Washington, here's the U.S. response. You could say tempered, you could say timid, depending on how you feel about it. Let's listen to Jen Psaki, the spokesperson at the State Department who did not want to answer a reporter's question about whether Syria had crossed the red line set out by the Obama administration by using chemical weapons as it is alleged.
JEN PSAKI: I'm not talking about red lines. I'm not having a debate or conversation about red lines. Or I'm not setting red lines. Let's not talk about red today.
HOBSON: So what might the U.S. response be here, Michele, based on what we just heard?
KELEMEN: Well, I mean, they do have a problem because President Obama did set chemical weapons use as a red line. But again, earlier this year the Obama administration said it had evidence that the Syrian government used chemical agents, possibly sarin, on multiple occasions. So they'd already crossed the Obama administration's red line, and the response has been increasing aid to the rebels, and that's all the U.S. has done so far.
HOBSON: They've - they've given a lot of humanitarian aid, and they've increased the aid to the rebels. And we're not hearing much more beyond that at this point.
NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen in Washington. Michele, thanks so much for joining us.
KELEMEN: Thanks, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.