Tuesday, August 27, 2013

US poised to strike Syria

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Chemical weapon use 'undeniable' in Syria

RAW VIDEO: Secretary of State John Kerry cuts his vacation short to address the crisis in Syria as the US considers possible military actions.

US President Barack Obama is weighing a limited military strike against Syria designed to punish its use of chemical weapons, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country's civil war, according to senior administration officials.

Britain also said it was drawing up contingency plans for military action and was recalling Parliament from its summer recess to discuss the crisis.

Syria remained defiant, with its Foreign Minister saying the country's defences would "surprise" the world.

Crime scene: A United Nations weapons inspector collects evidence.

Crime scene: A United Nations weapons inspector collects evidence. Photo: AFP

The timing of any attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles - or possibly long-range bombers - is dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week's alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.


Missile-armed US warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean Sea.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the use of chemical weapons in an attack last Wednesday against opposition strongholds on the eastern outskirts of Damascus was now ''undeniable''.

Evidence being gathered by United Nations experts in Syria was important, Mr Kerry said, but not necessary to prove what is already ''grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense''.

The team of UN weapons investigators visited one of three rebel-held suburbs on Monday where the alleged attack took place, after first having to withdraw when their vehicles came under sniper fire.

The Syrian government, which along with Russia has suggested that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, agreed to the UN inspection at the weekend.

The US intelligence report on the alleged attack is to be released this week. Among the factors, officials said, are that only the Syrian regime is known to possess chemical weapons and the rockets to deliver them, and its continuing control of chemical stocks has been closely monitored by US intelligence.

Mr Kerry said Syrian forces had engaged in a ''cynical attempt to cover up'' their actions, not only by delaying the arrival of the UN team but by shelling the affected area continually. Any US strike would probably await the departure of the UN inspectors from Syria.

''What we are talking about here is a potential response … to this specific violation of international norms,'' White House press secretary Jay Carney said. ''While it is part of this ongoing Syrian conflict in which we have an interest and in which we have a clearly stated position, it is distinct in that regard.''

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem vowed on Tuesday that his country would defend itself against any Western military strikes.

"We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal. The second choice is the best: we will defend ourselves," Mr Muallem said in a televised news conference.

Mr Muallem said any such action against it would serve the interests of Israel and Al-Qaeda.

"Syria is not an easy case. We have defences which will surprise others," he said.

Britain's armed forces are drawing up contingency plans for military action in Syria, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said on Tuesday, but no decision had been made about what action may be taken.

Mr Cameron later said he would recall Parliament from its summer recess to debate a possible military intervention.

"We are continuing to discuss with our international partners what the right response should be, but, as part of this, we are making contingency plans for the armed forces," Mr Cameron's spokesman said.

The prime minister will continue talks with other world leaders to agree a "proportionate response" to the gas attack near Damascus last Wednesday.

"This is about deterring the use of chemical weapons," the British spokesman said.

Mr Cameron has cut short his summer holiday in order to deal with the Syria crisis and is due to chair a meeting of Britain's National Security Council in London on Wednesday.

Russia's Interfax news agency said any Western intervention in Syria would not bring an "easy victory" because the Damascus government has enough air defence systems to rebuff attacks.

"If the US army together with NATO launch an operation against Syria there won't be an easy victory," the news agency quoted a military-diplomatic source as saying.

"Multi-functional surface-to-air missile system Buk-M2E and other means of air defence that the Syrian troops possess will give a proper response to the aggressors," the source added.

The inspectors had been due to visit the sites again on Tuesday, but Mr Muallem said their trip had been postponed until Wednesday because rebels failed to guarantee their security.

"Today, we were surprised by the fact that they were not able to get there because the rebels did not agree to guarantee the mission's security. So the mission has been delayed until tomorrow," said Mr Muallem.

The group was originally due to leave Syria on Sunday, but their stay could be extended.

The use of ''limited stand-off strikes'' has long been among the options the Pentagon has provided Mr Obama. ''Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing,'' chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said in a June letter to Congress.

General Dempsey, who has questioned the wisdom of direct intervention in Syria, said that such an operation would potentially cost ''in the billions'', but the action that is being contemplated would be far smaller.

Fearing a possible US strike against neighbouring Syria which could spill across their northern border, Israelis are scurrying to replace old or missing gas masks, an official said on Tuesday.

"Since the beginning of the week there has been a significant rise in the number of calls to our enquiry centre, a fourfold increase," a spokeswoman for the Israel Postal Service, which distributes the gas masks, told AFP.

Washington Post, AFP

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