The Associated Press
AMMAN, Jordan – The leader of an al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebel group vowed on Sunday to attack villages home to President Bashar Assad’s minority sect to avenge a deadly alleged chemical weapons attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus last week.
A senior U.S. administration official says there is “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in the incident.
The official said Sunday that the U.S. intelligence community based its assessment given to the White House on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, and witness accounts.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
The official says the White House believes the Syrian government is barring a U.N. investigative team immediate access to the site of a reported Aug. 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs in order to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade.
Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s comments came in an audio recording posted on a militant website that usually carries al-Qaida and similar groups’ statements. It also appeared on the group’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, although the authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified.
Last Wednesday’s purported chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta has prompted U.S. naval forces to move closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers a military response.
Al-Golani said he plans to target villages inhabited by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates his regime.
Addressing the families of children killed in the alleged chemical attack, al-Golani said: “The revenge for the blood of your children is a debt to be paid back ... 1,000 rockets will be fired at them in revenge for the massacre of Ghouta.”
In Jordan, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was set to meet with Arab and Western peers later in the day to discuss ways to bolster the security of Syria’s neighbors against possible attacks, chemical or other, by Assad’s regime, a Jordanian security official said.
The meeting, closed to the press and held at an unspecified location, gathers chiefs of staff from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief reporters.
“It underscores the regional concern about spillover effects of the Syrian conflict,” the official said. He said the gathering will continue through Tuesday.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the meeting, co-hosted by the U.S. Central Command, has been planned since June. But Syria is high on the agenda.
U.S. officials have said Obama will decide how to respond once the facts are known.
“In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” the White House said after Obama’s meeting Saturday, which included Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others.
Hagel declined Friday to discuss specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. U.S. defense officials said that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told a joint press conference with his visiting Egyptian counterpart that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “horrific crime.”
“The side which committed such action must be held accountable,” he said. He echoed concern over Jordan’s security, but stressed that the government has had plans in place since the outset of the Syrian crisis in 2011 to deal with any eventuality.
Also Sunday, French President Francois Hollande said signs suggest that Assad’s regime was behind the purported chemical weapons attack. In a statement issued by his office, he said that France had “a body of evidence” that the attack involved chemical weapons. The statement didn’t elaborate.