Western powers demanded Syria give UN chemical weapons experts immediate access on Thursday to rebel-held Damascus suburbs where poison gas appears to have killed hundreds just a few miles from the UN team’s hotel.
There was no sign, however, that they would soon be taking take samples at the scene of horrors that have drawn comparison with the gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents gave death tolls from 500 to well over 1,000 and said more bodies were being found in the wake of Wednesday’s mysterious pre-dawn killer fumes, which the Syrian government insists were not of its making.
Talk, notably from France and Britain, of a forceful foreign response remains unlikely to be translated into rapid, concerted action given Russian opposition and deep caution in Washington.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if allegations that Syria’s government was responsible for the deadliest chemical attack on civilians in a quarter-century prove true; but even Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops on the ground.
Britain, too, said no option should be ruled out “that might save innocent lives in Syria”. But European forces can do little without US help and Washington shows little appetite for war.
Syrian authorities have called allegations against their forces “illogical and fabricated”, pointing to the timing of the attack and their previous assertions that, if they possessed chemical weapons, they would never use them against Syrians.
Key Assad ally Moscow pointed the finger at a “provocation” by rebels keen to draw in Western military assistance.
After months of negotiating with Assad’s government to let inspectors into Syria, a UN team arrived in Damascus four days ago.