Tuesday 12 December 2017

Britain joins international chorus claiming Syria used chemical weapons

Andrew Woodcock

Britain believes there is a "growing body of persuasive evidence" that the regime of President Bashar Assad is using chemical weapons against rebels in Syria, Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said today.

But the spokesman said it was important for the independent United Nations investigation to establish the "full facts" about allegations of chemical weapons use before deciding what the international response should be. He urged the Assad regime to co-operate fully with the inspectors appointed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon

Speaking to reporters at a regular Westminster briefing, he declined to give details of how material obtained from the site of alleged chemical attacks in Syria was brought out of the country for analysis at the Government's Porton Down laboratories.

Britain's ambassador to the UN Sir Mark Lyall Grant last night told reporters in New York that Britain had evidence suggesting the Assad regime has used various chemical agents, including deadly nerve gas sarin. Similar claims have been made by France.

"It is relatively small quantities but nonetheless repeated use, and any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent," said Sir Mark, who added that the UK has reported a number of incidents to Mr Ban and the UN investigation team.

News of the evidence of chemical weapon use came as the rebel-held border town of Qusair fell to Assad's troops after three weeks of intense fighting, which has seen Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon join the battle on the regime's side.

Asked whether Mr Assad should now allow humanitarian agencies access to Qusair to help civilians injured and left homeless by the fighting, Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "The safety and security and wellbeing of the Syrian population is at the heart of the international community's entire approach. The killing and the wounding must stop."

US president Barack Obama has repeatedly said that Syria's use of chemical weapons, or the transfer of its stockpiles to a terrorist group, would cross a "red line" that could trigger further international action.

Asked whether the new evidence was the "game-changer" which could lead to a change in approach towards Syria, Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "What we have done is shared the information and evidence that we have to the UN and we continue to support and assist the UN investigation, which is what is needed to establish the full facts.

"It sends out a very clear message to the Assad regime that it must and should co-operate with that UN investigation."

He added: added: "There is a growing body of persuasive evidence that the regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons, but there is a need, through the UN, to establish the full facts.

"The room for doubt continues to diminish, but we remain very much of the view that what we need is for this independent UN investigation to get to the full facts."

Asked what Britain would do if the UN determined that chemical weapons had been used, the PM's spokesman said: "We have said that we would have to consider how we would change our response."

Mr Cameron's spokesman stressed that no decision had yet been taken on whether the UK would supply arms to the Syrian National Coalition forces fighting to unseat Assad, following the EU's decision to lift its embargo on lethal supplies last month.

Ending the embargo should increase the pressure on Assad to engage with a US-Russian plan for revived talks at Geneva on a political transitional to a new government in Syria, he said.

"The point of the lifting of the embargo was to give the flexibility necessary to respond in the way we see fit if the regime doesn't negotiate," said the PM's spokesman.

Challenged over whether Mr Assad should be offered safe passage out of Syria to help smooth the way to transition, he replied: "We have been very clear that President Assad has no future. Assad must go. We want there to be a transitional regime.

"The message, loud and clear, is that he must go."

Asked whether he will recall Parliament so that MPs can debate any proposal to arm the Syrian rebels during the summer recess, Mr Cameron told the House of Commons: "I've never been someone who's wanted to stand against the House having a say on any of these issues. I've always been someone early on to make sure that Parliament is recalled to discuss important issues.

"Let me stress, as I did on Monday, no decision has been taken to arm the rebels, so I don't think this issue arises."

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