Last updated: August 25, 2013 10:25 pm

West eyes air strikes on Syrian military

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Syrian army©AP

In this photo taken on a government-organised tour, a Syrian soldier walks on a street in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus, where Syrian state media said rebels had used chemical weapons on Saturday against government troops

Western powers are considering air strikes against President Bashar al Assad’s military assets in Syria in the near future, in a move aimed at warning the regime not to deploy chemical weapons.

Syria on Sunday bowed to international pressure and agreed to allow UN inspectors to gain access to sites in the Damascus suburbs where alleged chemical attacks occurred last week.

But the move was quickly rebuffed by the US, with the Obama administration criticising the move as “too late to be credible” in a further sign that the case for military action against Syria was building. The White House also said there was “very little doubt” that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime in last week’s attack in eastern Damascus, which left more than 300 dead and thousands injured.

A senior western official told the Financial Times that the US, Britain and France were strongly of the view that they needed to deliver a military response to the attack in order to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again.

The three governments were considering a series of one-off strikes on Syrian regime military assets to make clear that much of the international community would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in modern warfare, the official said.

The official said that these strikes could take place as early as this week, but added that western allies were not planning a sustained military intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of the opposition rebels, something that has often been mooted in the past.

US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron over the weekend discussed the need for what they called “a serious response” to last week’s deadly attack. British officials said there would probably be an additional discussion between the two leaders and French president Francois Hollande later in the week.

Mr Hollande told his US counterpart that “everything was consistent with naming the Damascus regime as the author” of the chemical attacks, according to a statement by the French government on Sunday.

The statement said that the two presidents “agreed to stay in close contact to arrive at a joint response to this unprecedented aggression”.

The apparent weekend shift closer to western intervention drew defiant responses from Syria’s two main allies, Russia and Iran, who both warned that any attack on Damascus would hurt the security situation in the Middle East.

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“America knows the limitation of the red line of the Syrian front and any crossing of Syria’s red line will have severe consequences for the White House,” a top military official in Tehran said on Sunday.

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry drew a parallel with the 2003 US-led intervention in Iraq, which followed accusations by then-president George W. Bush’s administration that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction.

“We once again decisively urge [the US] not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not to allow actions that go against international law,” the ministry said. “Any unilateral military action bypassing the United Nations will . . . lead to further escalation [in Syria] and will affect the already explosive situation in the Middle East in the most devastating way.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, warned that Israel would strike back if Syrian weapons were turned on Israel while the country’s president, Shimon Peres, called for an international effort to “take out” Syrian chemical weapons.

The UN said investigations of the affected sites would begin on Monday. The Syrian government has promised to “provide the necessary co-operation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident”, according to a statement from UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s office.

The White House was on Sunday dismissive of what the inspectors could be expected to find almost a week after the attack. “At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team is too late to be credible . . . because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”

Still, Yiftah Shapir, director of the military balance project at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said there was still a “very good chance” of finding something. Sarin gas is very volatile, he said, but could linger in “nooks and crannies” of the site, meaning inspectors might still find some traces.

Additional reporting by John Reed in Jerusalem, Adam Thomson in Paris and agencies

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