Obama weighs impact of air attack on Syria
US and UK prepare for strikes as punishment for alleged chemical weapons use as Damascus vows to use ‘all means available’ in defence
Western powers could attack Syria within days, envoys from the United States and its allies have told rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, sources who attended the meeting said yesterday.
US forces in the region are "ready to go", Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC, as Washington and its European and Middle Eastern partners honed plans to punish Assad for a major poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.
Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul on Monday between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments said the rebels were told to expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace.
"The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva," one of the sources said.
United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off a second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. Washington said it already held Assad responsible for a "moral obscenity" and President Barack Obama would hold him to account for it.
Senior administration officials said Obama was weighing a military strike of limited scope and duration, while keeping the US out of deeper involvement in the country's civil war.
"We're actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision," said an official. Missile-armed US warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
"The administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead," Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Preparations for a strike were also under way in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron recalled parliament for an urgent discussion on a possible military response to the alleged chemical attack.
In France, President Francois Hollande said that France was "ready to punish" those behind the chemical attack, adding that the conflict threatens "world peace".
"France is ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people," he said in a televised speech, pointing the finger of blame at Assad's regime.
In an indication of support from Arab states that may help Western powers argue the case for war against likely UN vetoes from Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding Assad's government responsible for the chemical attack.
In Saudi Arabia, the rebels' leading regional sponsor, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, called for "a decisive and serious stand by the international community to stop the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian people."
Syria's foreign minister said yesterday his country would defend itself using "all means available" in case of a strike. He denied his government was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus and challenged Washington to present proof of its accusations.
"We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone," Walid alMoallem said. "We will defend ourselves using all means available," he added.
Additional reporting by The Washington Post, Associated Press