Israel urges U.S. action over Syrian chemical weapons

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The United States should consider military action to curb Syrian chemical weapons after Washington went public with suspicions they have been used in the country’s civil war, Israel’s deputy foreign minister said on Friday.

The challenge by Zev Elkin, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscored tension this week over the allies’ assessments on Syria, as well as longer-running disputes about how aggressively to confront Iran’s nuclear program.

The White House said on Thursday the Syrian government had probably employed chemical arms on a small scale against rebels. The disclosure created a bind for President Barack Obama, who has declared such use a “red line” that must not be crossed.

It was also a shift from Washington’s skeptical response to Tuesday’s publication by the Israeli military of intelligence findings that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in recent months.

“The Iranians are watching, the whole world is watching too, and we should also see what happens,” Elkin told Israel’s Army Radio, when asked how U.S. strategy on Syria might unfold.

“There is a question here of when you set a red line, do you stand behind it?”

Israel has threatened to strike Syria, an enemy with which it previously maintained a decades-old truce, to prevent Assad’s chemical arsenal falling into the hands of jihadi insurgents or of Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

There has been similar Israeli sabre-rattling against Iran. But the Jewish state, with its military and diplomatic clout limited in a volatile region, has made clear it would prefer Washington to take the lead on any major offensive.

Commenting on the shift in Washington’s stance on Syria’s chemical weapons, Elkin said: “If, until today, there has been an effort to ignore our opinion, to a degree ... now that the Americans’ red line has apparently been crossed, there is a test.

“It is clear that if the United States wants to and the international community wants to, it could act - inter alia, militarily - to take control of the chemical weapons, and then all the fears ... will not be relevant.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday that growing evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was “extremely serious”.

But Cameron said it was highly unlikely to trigger the deployment of British troops, instead saying he wanted to see more support for the opposition to put pressure on President Assad.

Britain and France informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month that they have reliable evidence Assad’s forces used chemical weapons that caused injuries and deaths. They cited soil samples and interviews with witnesses and opposition figures.

The U.N. leader on Thursday renewed an “urgent call” for Syria to let inspectors into the country after the United States said government forces had probably used chemical weapons.

“The secretary general has consistently urged the Syrian authorities to provide full and unfettered access to the team. He renews this urgent call today,” said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.

“The fact-finding team is on stand-by and ready to deploy in 24-48 hours,” the spokesman added, following the U.S. administration's claims that the Syrian government has probably "used chemical weapons on a small scale."

Syria asked for a U.N. investigation but has since refused to let a U.N. team waiting in the region into the country. Assad’s government only wants its claims that opposition rebels used chemical arms to be investigated. Ban has said the team should also look into opposition claims.

On Friday, the European Union also reiterated a request to Damascus to enable a U.N. chemical weapons probe in Syria.

“We hope there will be a United Nations investigation inside Syria to hopefully shed some light on what has really happened,” a spokesman for the EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton said after being queried over the EU stand.

“The bottom line is this would of course be clearly unacceptable” if proven, said spokesman Michael Mann.

Meanwhile, two Syrian officials denied on Friday that government forces had used chemical weapons against rebels, Damascus’ first response to U.S. assertions that it had.

In Damascus, a government official said President Assad’s military “did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them.” He instead accused opposition forces of using them in a March attack on the village of Khan al-Assad outside of the northern city of Aleppo.

Both sides have accused each other of the deadly attack.

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