|An Israeli citizen picks up a gas mask as tension surrounding the Syrian crisis escalated in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Motzkin, near the Mediterranean coastal city of Haifa, on Saturday. (AFP)
Washington, Sept. 1 (Reuters): US secretary of state John Kerry today said tests showed that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly August 21 chemical attack near Damascus as he sought to build the case to convince sceptical lawmakers to authorise a military strike against the Syrian government.
Kerry made the disclosure in a series of television interviews a day after President Barack Obama delayed imminent military action in Syria to seek approval first from the US Congress — a decision that puts any strike on hold for at least nine days.
“This is squarely now in the hands of Congress,” Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence “they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.”
Kerry declined to say whether Obama would go ahead with military action if Congress rejects the President’s request. But he insisted that the President had the right to act on his own if he chooses that course.
Obama is taking a gamble by putting the brakes on an military assault that he has made clear is essential to maintain US credibility regarding enforcement of a “red line” he set against the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
But the move reflects a desire to make sure Congress shares any responsibility for intervening in Syrian’s civil war at a time when Americans are weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The developments coincided with Syria hailing an “historic American retreat”, mockingly accusing President Barack Obama of hesitation and confusion.
“Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication, the beginning of the historic American retreat,” Syria’s official al-Thawra newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
With US lawmakers due to be briefed by Obama’s national security team on the administration’s rationale for military action, Kerry used TV appearances to provide further proof backing accusations against the Syrian government.
“I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry told CNN’s State of the Union.
It was the first time the administration has pinpointed what kind of chemical was used in the attack on a rebel-held area, which US intelligence agencies said killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.
“So this case is building and this case will build,” Kerry told NBC’s Face the Nation.
Backing from Congress is by no means assured, with many Democrats and Republicans uneasy about intervening in a distant civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed over the past two and a half years.
Lawmakers for the most part welcomed Obama’s decision but looked in no hurry to come back to Washington early from their summer recess, which lasts until September 9.
Pope Francis on Sunday invited people of all faiths to join him and the world’s Catholics in a day of prayer and fasting on September 7 to end the conflict in Syria.
Addressing tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square, he issued a long, impassioned appeal for peace in Syria and across West Asia, saying God and history would be the judge of those who promoted violence or prevented peace. Francis condemned the use of chemical weapons, blamed by western powers on Syrian government forces, but added: “War, never again”.