The United States, in conjunction with its allies, continued to prepare the ground for limited military strikes against Syria for its alleged use last week of proscribed chemical weapons against its own citizens even as officials in Washington stressed that President Barack Obama had yet to make a final decision.
“We are ready to go,” Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defence, said when asked whether the Pentagon had assets in place ready to stage an attack. Meanwhile, the Arab League gave its backing to an international response calling the regime in Damascus “totally responsible for this heinous crime”.
The statement by the council of the Arab League, meeting in emergency session, gives some legal cover to the US if it chooses to take action. But the council, dominated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also called upon the UN Security Council to overcome its divisions and agree “deterrent” measures against Syria.
A senior US official meanwhile cautioned nothing is yet set in stone. “The President has not made a decision to undertake military action,” the officials said, indicating that President Obama is still consulting his allies and seeking advice on whether military action is justified within international law.
Yet the momentum towards ordering some kind of strike seemed to grow. On Monday the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the evidence against the regime “undeniable”.
The US was preparing perhaps as early as last night to lay out fresh intelligence further bolstering its case that the regime was culpable.
President François Hollande made clear the French government was ready to join the effort, declaring he is “ready to punish” those responsible for gassing innocents in the Damascus outskirts. The White House said that Mr Obama had also spoken by phone to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Sources told the Reuters news agency, meanwhile, that opposition leaders meeting with Western envoys in Istanbul had been told privately to get ready for some kind of military action soon. The message was apparently delivered as representatives of the Friends of Syria group, including senior national security officials from the US and Britain, met Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition.
“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.
Interviewed by the BBC while on a visit to Brunei last night, Mr Hagel was asked if the Pentagon was ready to punish Syria “just like that” should the order come soon. He replied: “We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the President wishes to take.” It is thought likely that a strike would be executed with cruise missiles fired from naval assets already in place in the eastern Mediterranean – currently four American destroyers .
As it prepares the American populace for likely military action in the region, the US nonetheless continues to face a hostile reaction from Russia, a strong ally of Damascus, and from the regime itself. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, issued a belligerent statement saying Syria would respond in kind and claiming the West had no proof President Bashar al-Assad had ordered the use of chemical weapons last Wednesday.
“We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone,” he told reporters in Damascus. “We will defend ourselves using all means available.” He went on: “I challenge those who accuse our forces of using these weapons to come forward with the evidence.”
Saudi Arabia has been among the Arab states lobbying America the hardest to intervene even since suspicions of Damascus using chemical weapons first surfaced in February. In Riyadh last night the Saudi 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”.
The statement from Arab League said its council of ministers “holds the Syrian regime totally responsible for this heinous crime and calls for all involved in the despicable crime to be given a fair international trial like other war criminals”.