Britain’s National Security Council unanimously backed action against Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday, a day after he set out the case for a targeted military strike.
“The NSC (National Security Council) agreed unanimously that the use of chemical weapons by (Syrian President) Assad was unacceptable – and the world should not stand by,” Cameron said on his official Twitter feed after a meeting of the high-level security body.
A spokeswoman from Cameron’s office said the NSC had agreed on a specific recommendation that would be put to government ministers on Thursday morning before parliament debated and voted on Britain’s response.
Cameron’s office declined to say what the recommendation was, but a government source said a military strike was one of the options being considered by the NSC. A spokesman for the prime minister said on Tuesday that plans for a possible military response were being drafted.
Unusually, every government minister who attended the NSC had spoken, the same government source said, adding that the attorney general had offered advice on the legality of any action, Britain’s top soldier on the military aspect, and that a senior civil servant had supplied an intelligence briefing.
“There was discussion about what it would mean for the UK’s role in the world if others acted and we didn’t,” the source told reporters. “Ministers spoke about the need to be clear about the risks of inaction,” the source added, saying there was an awareness that any action carried certain risks.
UN’s Ban says UN inspectors need ‘four days’ in Syria
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that UN inspectors needed four days in total to conclude a probe into chemical weapons use in Syria.
“My mandate and my responsibility at this time is to conduct a thorough and complete investigation,” Ban told reporters in The Hague.
“Let them (inspectors) conclude their work for four days,” he said, speaking at the centenary anniversary of the Peace Palace, seat of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations’ highest court.
The UN chief added that the team’s findings would then be analysed and the result sent to the UN Security Council for “any action they would deem to take”.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said later that Ban was referring to a total of four days. This suggests that the inspectors, who began their probe of the alleged chemical weapons site on Monday but whose work was suspended on Tuesday, needed at least until Friday to complete their work.
Ban’s comments came as the United States and its allies were building their case for military action against the Syrian regime over the alleged chemical weapons attacks, despite stern warnings from Russia.
The UN chief earlier called on a divided Security Council to unite and find a diplomatic solution to the escalating Syrian conflict.
“Syria is the biggest challenge of war and peace in the world today. The body entrusted with maintaining international peace and security cannot be missing in action,” Ban said, referring to the Security Council.
“The Council must at last find the unity to act. It must use its authority for peace,” Ban said.
“The Syrian people deserve solutions, not silence,” Ban said.
“We must pursue all avenues to get the parties to the negotiating table,” he said.
He also warned that any move to supply weapons to either side would only worsen the situation.
“To those providing weapons to either side, we must ask: what have those arms achieved but more bloodshed?
“The military logic has given us a country on the verge of total destruction, a region in chaos and a global threat. Why add more fuel to the fire?”
Ban said however that all perpetrators of chemical attacks would be brought to justice, but that the facts had to established first.
The UN inspectors have “collected valuable samples” and have conducted interviews with victims and witnesses since arriving in the strive-torn country.
“They need time to do their jobs,” Ban said.
Syria evacuates army buildings in Damascus
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces appear to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus in preparation for a Western military strike, residents and opposition sources said on Wednesday.
US-led air or missile strikes on Syria look all but certain after the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies blamed a suspected poison gas attack that killed hundreds in the city on Aug 21 on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Army units stationed near the capital have confiscated several trailer trucks, apparently to transport heavy weaponry to alternative locations, though no significant movement of military hardware has been reported, possibly due to heavy fighting near major highways, one of the sources added.
Among the buildings that have been partially evacuated are the General Staff Command Building on Umayyad Square, the nearby airforce command and the security compounds in the Western Kfar Souseh districts, residents of the area and a Free Syrian Army rebel source said.
Syrian military authorities do not discuss troop movements publicly, and no government spokesman was available for comment.
The General Staff building, one of the top military headquarters in the country, has been operating with reduced staffing since it was attacked by rebel bombs in September last year.
But almost no one reported for work at that or the other buildings on Wednesday.
They said trucks have been seen in the last 48 hours at the cordoned off entrance of several buildings, apparently transporting documents and light weapons.
“You can drop a needle in Kfar Souseh and hear it,” said a resident who lives near the Palestine branch of Military Intelligence in Kfar Souseh.
Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior military defector, said from an undisclosed location in Syria that based on Free Syrian Army intelligence gatherings, the general staff command had been moved to an alternative compound in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains north of Damascus.
“Various commands are being moved to schools and underground bunkers. But I am not sure it is going to do much good for the regime,” Sheikh said.
Another resident who lives at the foothills of Qasioun, the mountain in the middle of the city in which elite praetorian guard units are based, said the boom of artillery, usually heard daily form the 105th battalion of the Republican Guards, had fallen silent on Wednesday.
“They have been lots of army trucks descending from Qasioun. It seems they have evacuated the 105 battalion headquarters,” the resident said.
Activists in east Damascus said barracks and housing compounds for the Republican Guards and Fourth Division near the suburbs of Somariya and Mouadamiya had been evacuated and troops and their families had gone into the city.
Abu Ayham, a commander in the Ansar al-Islam rebel brigade in Damascus said the army’s general staff and Airforce Intelligence had been evacuated, as well as several mixed-use barracks/housing buildings for the Republican Guards and Fourth Division on the eastern outskirts of the city.
“To all intents and purposes, the army’s command and control compounds have been evacuated. Before the threat (of Western strike) they have been taking precautions by working more from lower floors. In the last 48 hours they have been vacated,” he said.