Crisis in the Middle East – U.S. Considers Military Options Against Syria.

August 25, 2013 International Group Says Chemical-weapons Were Used in Syria, U.S. Considering Military Response: An international aid group said Saturday that hospitals near a purported chemical-weapons attack earlier this week have counted 355 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries that suggest possible exposure to chemical weapons. Pictured above, location of Wednesday’s attack.

Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place. Of those, 355 died, said the Paris-based group.

The report provides some of the clearest evidence yet by an independent organization that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime and rebels fighting to oust him.

Although Doctors Without Borders said in its statement that it could not definitively confirm that chemical weapons were used, and if so, by whom, its report raises the pressure on the international community to respond.

The patients in the three hospitals the organization supports near the reported attack were given atropine that it had supplied. Atropine is a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms, including exposure to chemical weapons. Doctors Without Borders said it is now trying to replenish the facilities’ stocks of atropine.

“The reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first-aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent,” the organization said.

Meeting on the issue Saturday with his national security team, President Barack Obama received a detailed review of the range of options he has for the U.S. and its international partners if it is determined that Mr. Assad has engaged in chemical warfare.

Mr. Obama also discussed the situation in Syria by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the White House said. It was Mr. Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the reports this week that hundreds of Syrians had been killed in the alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, the capital.

The White House said the two leaders expressed “grave concern” about the reported chemical weapons use.

A statement from Mr. Cameron‘s office said the prime minister and Mr. Obama are concerned by “increasing signs” that this was “a significant chemical weapons attack” by the Syrian government against its people. Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community,” according to the statement.

Noting that the U.N. Security Council has called for investigators to be granted immediate access to the area, Mr. Cameron’s office said, “The fact that President Assad has failed to cooperate with the U.N. suggests that the regime has something to hide.”

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, in an interview with Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, accused rebels of using chemical weapons. “The rockets were fired from their positions and fell on civilians. They are responsible,” he said without elaborating.

Leaders of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group on Saturday blamed the government for the attack and vowed to retaliate for it.

The claims and counterclaims could muddy the debate about who was responsible for the attack, which has spurred demands for an independent investigation and renewed talk of potential international military action if chemical weapons are determined to have been used.

U.S. naval forces are moving closer to Syria as Mr. Obama considers a military response to the alleged chemical-weapons use by Mr. Assad’s government.

U.S. defense officials told the Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.

Syria’s information minister, in his interview Saturday, dismissed the possibility of an American attack, saying that such a move would risk triggering more violence in the region.

“The basic repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East,” Mr. al-Zoubi said. “An attack on Syria would be no easy trip.”

Hours earlier, the United Nations disarmament chief arrived in Damascus to press the Assad regime to allow U.N. experts to investigate the attack. The regime has denied allegations it was responsible, calling them “absolutely baseless” and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the U.N. and allow a team of experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents. The U.N. secretary-general dispatched Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament affairs, to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday’s purported attack. She didn’t speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus Saturday.

The new talk of potential military action in the country has made an independent investigation by U.N. inspectors critical to determining what exactly transpired.

The U.N. experts already in Syria are tasked with investigating three earlier purported chemical attacks in the country: one in the village of Khan al-Assal outside the northern city of Aleppo in March, as well as two other locations that have been kept secret for security reasons.

It took months of negotiations between the U.N. and Damascus before an agreement was struck to allow the 20-member team into Syria to investigate. Its mandate is limited to those three sites, however, and it is only charged with determining whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them. (Credits – AP, The WSJ and The Guardian).

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