Syria: US readies missile attack but Assad warns it will ‘fail'
US and UK ready cruise missile strike as UN inspectors finally allowed to visit site of chemical attack
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this story was published the convoy carrying UN inspectors was attacked by snipers and forced to turn back. The mission has now resumed and the team is collecting evidence at the site of the alleged chemical weapon attack.
DAVID CAMERON is "pressing" President Obama to launch a missile strike on Syria in the next few days in response to the chemical weapons attack near Damascus, The Times says. The paper believes a "one-off barrage of strikes" using cruise missiles launched from warships in the Mediterranean is the leading option under consideration. It will be discussed today by General Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, when he meets his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, in Jordan.
The threat of joint military action by Washington and London drew a strong rebuke from Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who warned it was doomed to failure. "Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day," Assad told Russia's Isvestia newspaper when asked about the prospect of a US attack.
Assad also stressed that Russia, his staunchest ally, is continuing to supply his regime with weapons and support. "I want to say that all contracts that have been concluded with Russia are being fulfilled," he said. Assad did not reveal if Moscow has delivered advanced S-300 air defence systems to the Syrian regime, a development which would "vastly improve its defence capabilities" and make any attempt to seize control Syrian air space considerably more difficult.
Assad reiterated that his government was not responsible for the chemical attack which took place about 12 miles from Damascus and killed as many as 1.300 people. He said Syrian troops were operating in the area at the time, so to unleash such an attack would "go against elementary logic".
Here is a round-up of other key developments:
Syria gives "green light" to inspection of chemical attack site: Five days after the atrocity at Ghouta, Syria appears to have bowed to international pressure and allowed UN inspectors to visit the site today. The decision was "immediately greeted with skepticism" by western leaders and chemical weapons experts, who say it may now be too late for inspectors to gather useful scientific results. The Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has said it is "clear" the Assad regime carried out the attack, downplayed the significance of today's UN inspection. Hague said inspectors would have been admitted last week if Damascus had nothing to hide. "We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way and that there are no consequences for it," he said. The 20-member UN inspection team has been in Syria since 18 August to look into three earlier suspected chemical attacks. It is expected to collect blood, urine, tissue and soil samples for laboratory testing.
Russia urges Washington to use restraint: Moscow has expressed its "concern" over America's apparent willingness to use force against the Assad regime, The Guardian reports. That concern was expressed in a phone call between Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry on Sunday in which the Russian warned the US against falling for "provocations".
"[Lavrov] stressed that the official announcements from Washington in recent days about the readiness of US armed forces to 'intervene' in the Syrian conflict have been received in Moscow with deep concern," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Turkey has said it would join any international coalition against Syria even if a wider consensus on action could not be reached at the UN security council. Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: "We always prioritise acting together with the international community, with United Nations decisions. If such a decision doesn't emerge from the UN security council, other alternatives ... would come onto the agenda."
Did Assad's "ruthless" brother mastermind chemical attack? Maher al-Assad has kept a low profile for the past year, but he has been instrumental in the Syrian army's successful bid to claw back territory from the rebels, The Guardian says. Maher is the chief of the 4th Armoured Division and also leads Syria's other premier fighting force, the Republican Guards. "Both units have been at the vanguard of the war since its earliest days, and were active again last week as loyalist forces launched their biggest operation yet to root out rebel groups from the capital," says The Guardian. "It was while this operation was under way that thousands of residents of east Ghouta were exposed to what scientists increasingly believe was a nerve agent, possibly sarin."
Mahar's reputation for brutality was firmly established when he was asked to put down a prison revolt in 2008. He performed the task with "brutal efficiency", reportedly killing many who had taken guards and soldiers hostage, then filming the bodies with his camera phone. ·