MAHER DID IT ? – Assad’s brother accused of orchestrating chemical attack

SAUDI GAZETTE & GUARDIAN & REUTERS – 28.8.2013 – Pigeons lie on the ground after dying from what activists say is the use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad in the Damascus suburbs of Arbeen on Saturday. – Reuters

DUBAI – Maher Al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother, is being accused of involvement in Syria’s recent chemical weapons attack, the Guardian reported on Saturday. Not seen for a year, Maher has remained in the shadows commanding Syria’s most formidable military division, while his brother has been in the public eye. According to the Guardian, the question on the lips of many Syrians is to what extent has Maher played a role in the most recent atrocity witnessed in Syria.

The 4th Armored Division that Maher commands has been a chief protagonist on behalf of the regime. He has allegedly acted as division commander since 2000, and at the same time leads Syria’s other premier fighting force, the Republican Guards. The unit was active last week as loyalist forces launched their biggest operation yet to root out rebel groups from the capital.

The 4th division has remained relatively unaffected by desertions and defections that plagued other divisions in the first 18 months of the war. Maher’s last public appearance was several weeks before an explosion in a meeting room in central Damascus killed security chief, and the Assads’ brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

Meanwhile, a senior US administration official said there was “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least a hundred people last week.

The official said on Sunday that the US 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 said the White House believes the Syrian government is barring a UN investigative team immediate access to the site of the reported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs in order to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade. French President Francois Hollande also said that evidence indicated the Syrian regime had carried out chemical weapons attacks on its own people last week. Hollande said there was “a body of evidence indicating that the Aug. 21 attack was chemical in nature, and that everything led to the belief that the Syrian regime was responsible for this unspeakable act.”

The French president called for UN weapons inspectors to be given access to suspect sites “without delay and without any restrictions whatsoever,” in a statement released by his office after he held telephone talks on the situation in Syria with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

A separate statement issued after Hollande held phone talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron said the two leaders “unreservedly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria.” The presidency said Hollande and Cameron have agreed to hold talks soon on how to respond to the regime’s “intolerable act,” which it said France was determined “not to let… go unpunished.”

The Syrian opposition accuses Assad’s forces of killing more than 1,300 people on Wednesday in chemical attacks east and southwest of Damascus. Doctors Without Borders said 355 people died this week of “neurotoxic” symptoms.

Urine, blood and hair samples collected in Damascus on Wednesday were being transported to various European capitals including Paris for testing, French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche reported Sunday.

The results of previous samples taken from Syria in May led France to accuse the regime of using the nerve gas sarin. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday the US military was ready to take action against the Assad regime if ordered to by Barack Obama. – Agencies