DAMASCUS, Syria – United Nations experts on Monday will start investigating the site of an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack after a go-ahead from Damascus, as a skeptical Washington said Syria’s acceptance had come too late.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Sunday warned that any evidence of a chemical attack by the Syrian may regime may have already been destroyed.
“The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment,” he cautioned during a press conference after Damascus gave its green light to a mission by U.N. inspectors.
In an escalation of a showdown over a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week, the United States pointed the finger of blame at President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it weighed military action.
“There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident,” based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, as well as U.S. and other foreign intelligence, one official in Washington told AFP.
Syria’s opposition says more than 1,300 people died when regime forces unleashed chemical weapons against rebel-held towns east and southwest of Damascus on Aug. 21, while Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of “neurotoxic” symptoms.
Damascus has strongly denied it carried out such an attack, instead blaming the rebels.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a Jerusalem press conference on Sunday there was “no doubt” the Damascus regime was behind the suspected attack.
“From the moment the substance of the facts is established incontestably (by the U.N. inspectors), there will necessarily be a strong response,” he added.
Moscow bluntly warned the West that military action against the Syrian regime would be a “tragic mistake.”
“We strongly urge those who, by attempting to impose their own results on the U.N. experts, are raising the possibility of a military operation in Syria to use their common sense and refrain from committing a tragic mistake,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Kasevich’s said in a statement.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said that visiting U.N. disarmament envoy Angela Kane struck the accord with the Syrian government on Sunday for a probe.
The United Nations said in a statement the investigation would begin as early as Monday.
U.S. officials said President Barack Obama, who held crisis talks Saturday with top security aides, would make an “informed decision” about how to respond to an “indiscriminate” chemical weapons attack.
Washington had noted that Syria had offered to let U.N. inspectors view the site of the alleged attack, but suggested it was too little, too late, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official said.
If confirmed, the attack would mark the deadliest use of chemical agents since late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels in the 1980s.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier Sunday the U.S. military was “prepared to exercise whatever option” against Syria but intelligence was still being evaluated.
On a visit to Malaysia, Hagel said the U.S. Defense Department had prepared “options for all contingencies” at Obama’s request.
On Saturday, Obama held a rare meeting with his top aides and discussed Syria by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron’s office said they two leaders agreed the use of chemical weapons would “merit a serious response” – echoing French calls.
Obama had said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was a “red line” that could trigger Western intervention.
On Sunday, a strident warning came from Washington’s arch-foe Iran.
“If the United States crosses this red line, there will be harsh consequences for the White House,” Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Massoud Jazayeri said, without elaborating.
The Arab League is to meet on Tuesday to discuss the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, the bloc’s deputy chief Ahmed Ben Helli said.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has said about 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” had flooded into three Syrian hospitals on the day of the alleged attacks, and 355 of them died.
“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said MSF operations director Bart Janssens.
MSF president Mego Terzian told AFP however that “scientific” proof is still lacking.
In Israel, President Shimon Peres called for international efforts to “take out” chemical weapons in Syria as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would pull the “trigger” if needed to protect its people.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule flared in March 2011, the U.N. says.
In the latest eruption of violence, the governor of Hama province in central Syria was killed in a car bombing on Sunday, state television reported, in an attack it blamed on rebels.