Russia warns of ‘tragic mistake’ as US mulls action in Syria

• Syria offers UN access to chemical attacks site
• US says Syrian offer ‘too late to be credible’

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday the US military was ready to take action against the Syrian regime if ordered, but stressed that Washington was still evaluating claims of a chemical weapons attack.

“President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that,” Hagel told reporters in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. “Again, we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options.”

Washington’s posturing prompted Russia to warn that Western military action against the Syrian regime would be a “tragic mistake.”

Russia welcomed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s offer to allow a mission by UN inspectors probing alleged chemical weapons use and said the investigation should be allowed to proceed unhampered.

“We strongly urge those who, by attempting to impose their own results on the UN experts, are raising the possibility of a military operation in Syria to use their common sense and refrain from committing a tragic mistake,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

Hagel said the US and its allies were assessing intelligence on allegations that Assad’s forces unleashed chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus last week as he battles an uprising that began in March 2011.

“I wouldn’t go further than that, until we have more intelligence based on facts,” Hagel said.

Hagel spoke after a meeting with his Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein, as he started a week-long Southeast Asia tour to stress Washington’s much-touted renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Two top lawmakers in the US earlier called for an immediate military response to Syria’s suspected chemical weapons attack.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker wants the US to respond in a “surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention.” The Tennessee lawmaker said such a response shouldn’t involve US troops on the ground, however.

Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York says the US must respond “quickly,” together with NATO allies, possibly using cruise missile strikes, as the US and NATO did in Libya.

A senior administration official said Sunday there is “very little doubt” a chemical weapon was used, but added the president had not yet decided how to respond.

Corker and Engel appeared on “Fox News Sunday.”

The United Nations said its inspectors could begin work as early as Monday, after Damascus agreed to the probe Sunday during a visit by top UN official Angela Kane.

Washington, which has said that evidence Assad’s regime used chemical weapons would cross a red line and warrant tougher action, said the Syrian offer was “too late to be credible.”

Russia — which together with Iran and China has supported Assad throughout the 29-month-old Syrian crisis — urged the rebel camp to guarantee the safety of the UN team lead by professor Aake Sellstroem.

“It is important that the armed opposition controlling part of Eastern Ghouta ensure that the UN mission is able to operate safely and refrain from the kind of armed provocation witnessed against UN observers last summer,” he said.
Opposition leaders already said Friday that UN inspectors would have “unfettered” access to areas under rebel control such as Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus to investigate the use of chemical weapons.

Doctors Without Borders has said 355 people died last week of “neurotoxic” symptoms, after the opposition claimed regime forces unleashed chemicals east and southwest of Damascus last Wednesday causing more than 1,300 deaths.
The regime has denied the charges and in turn accused the rebels of using chemical arms.

SOURCE: http://www.arabnews.com/news/462441

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