Special report: Syria to allow UN to inspect site of alleged chemical attack as David Cameron and Barack Obama warn Assad that military action looms closer

Britain and US warn President Assad of 'serious response'

Syrian state media says the government has reached an agreement to allow a UN team of experts to visit the site of last week's alleged chemical weapons attack as military action against Syria moved a step closer after Britain and the United States warned President Bashar al-Assad that there would be a “serious response” to the massacre. As fresh footage emerged of children killed in the strike against a Damascus suburb last Wednesday, David Cameron and Barack Obama agreed in a 40-minute phone call yesterday that the Syrian government was responsible for the atrocity and that all military options are on the table.

The two leaders agreed that "a significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response" and a "new stage" in the two-and-a-half-year civil war. In a sign of how the military build-up is escalating, Washington despatched a fourth naval warship to the Mediterranean capable of launching missile attacks on targets on the Syrian mainland. Mr Cameron and the US President are "looking for a response that makes clear our abhorrence about the use of chemical weapons", a British source said. "Both shared the view that there is little doubt that this was a significant use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons against his own people," a No 10 source said.

While Britain is against sending "boots on the ground", military action could range from enforcing no-fly zones to air strikes against the Syrian regime.

Britain and the US are demanding that Assad now allows UN weapons inspectors, who are 12 miles away from the scene of Wednesday's attack, to examine the site. President Obama warned last year that a chemical weapons attack would be a "red line" for the US in the crisis. A No 10 source added: "As the days pass, they [Cameron and Obama] think it is increasingly unlikely that inspectors will get in."

The attack, believed to involve a nerve agent, killed as many as 1,000 civilians, including children, and wounded thousands of others, according to Syrian rebel sources.

The charity Médecins Sans Frontières said yesterday that hospitals it supports around Damascus have received about 3,600 patients over the past few days, showing "neurotoxic symptoms", of which 355 have already died. It is feared there could have been hundreds more deaths.

As outrage over the atrocity fuelled calls for action, President Obama called his military and national security advisers for a meeting at the White House to discuss the next steps. There were reports yesterday that US naval forces were moving closer to Syria, with the fourth ballistic-missile warship sent to the Mediterranean.

"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the President with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces to be able to carry out different options – whatever options the President might choose," the US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, said yesterday.

A White House official said: "We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we're making decisions consistent with our national interest, as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria. The President has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the President will make an informed decision about how to respond."

Tomorrow, defence chiefs from the UK, France and other countries will meet in Amman, Jordan, to discuss the crisis. Sources insisted that the meeting had been planned since June, but it gives defence chiefs the opportunity to better understand the situation within Syria, according to Whitehall sources, including maintaining regional stability. General Sir Nick Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff, will attend the summit.

After what happened in Iraq, President Obama is cautious about launching any form of action – from imposing no-fly zones and arming the rebels to a full-scale military assault. The Obama-Cameron talks came as Angela Kane, the UN's disarmament chief, arrived in Damascus yesterday, to pressurise the Assad regime to allow UN inspectors, already in Syria, access to the site of the alleged attack.

Rebel forces have accused the Assad regime of launching the chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of the capital on Wednesday. But the Syrian government denies responsibility and says the opposition is behind the assault on the outskirts of the city. Western powers and even Syria's ally Russia have urged the Assad regime to let in a team of UN inspectors to investigate the allegations. France and Britain, who have both signalled strongly that they support military action in Syria, have said they believe Assad's forces were responsible.

"I know that some people in the world would like to say that this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria," said the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on Thursday. "I think the chances of that are vanishingly small and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime."

For the first time, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, acknowledged that chemical agents had killed people in Syria, though he didn't say who was responsible. Russia has blamed the rebels. Both Russia and Iran are staunch allies of Damascus.

Syrian state TV, widely seen as a propaganda machine for the Assad regime, yesterday pinned the blame firmly on the rebels by airing footage of gas masks and other explosives apparently found in rebel territory.

"You've got to have some sort of process where you signal intent and this is first step", said Michael Stephens, a Doha-based researcher for the Royal United Services Institute, referring to the US naval build-up in the Mediterranean.

Chemical weapons

The state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency claimed yesterday that Syrian army troops had uncovered a cache of chemical weapons in a network of tunnels used by rebel forces.

The soldiers, it said, "suffered from cases of suffocation" when rebels used "chemical agents" against them in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, close to where more than 1,000 civilians are reported to have been killed in a chemical attack last week.

The reports said the rebels had attacked "as a last resort" after government forces made "big gains". Television footage showed five blue and green plastic drums lined against a wall, as well as several rusty mortar bombs and grenades. Gas masks were shown, placed next to vials labelled "atropine", a nerve agent toxicity antidote. The presenter insisted that the images were proof that the rebels had used chemical weapons, but did not say which of the items contained them.

Critics claimed the reports were designed to deflect blame away from the Syrian government for a nerve gas attack in Damascus on Wednesday.

The international medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders said yesterday that three hospitals it supports in Damascus reported receiving 3,600 people displaying neurotoxic symptoms within three hours on Wednesday. Of those, 355 died. MSF says it cannot "scientifically confirm" the use of chemical weapons.

Tom Foot

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor