BEIRUT: Syrians hunkered down Wednesday in anticipation of multi-national airstrikes, but signs emerged of a possible delay in the move to strike, over the issue of a U.N. report on chemical arms use in the country.
United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, but Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.
Syria’s government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France, and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders.”
Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its Al-Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad’s foes. But the West says it must now act to stop the use of poison gas.
Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians – a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China.
The meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council have held hourlong talks on the British resolution, but the meeting ended with no sign of an imminent vote.
The U.S. and its allies say a U.N. veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind airstrikes.
Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.
Washington has repeatedly said President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order.
A senior U.S. official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We’re talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the official said.
Western armies are expected to wait until the U.N. experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires Sunday, and Ban said they needed four days to complete the work.
A second U.S. official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defenses and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high, lifting U.S. energy shares and the overall U.S. market.
But some emerging markets closed lower again Wednesday because of investor jitters over where the international escalation of Syria’s civil war might lead – however much Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission.
Syria’s envoy to the U.N. said he had asked Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups.
Damascenes, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for airstrikes.
In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighborhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it.
“Every street, every neighborhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city. “Where do we hide?”
Numerous factors, including weather and assessments of Syrian air defenses, may affect the timing of strikes. Analysts expect cruise missiles to be launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean. Aircraft could also play a role, as may forces from other NATO powers, notably Britain and France.
Obama is waiting for a U.S. intelligence report, though its findings are in little doubt. U.S. officials have already blamed Assad for the attacks on Aug. 21. U.S. sources suggested that the intelligence cache included intercepted communications between Syrian officials but that these contained no “smoking gun” and were not likely to be declassified for public release.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament to debate the Syria crisis Thursday. He should be able to secure cautious support, despite widespread misgivings among Western voters about new entanglements in the Muslim world.
But Britain will not take military action against the Syrian regime before U.N. inspectors report back, according to a motion published by the government Wednesday set to be put to the parliamentary vote.The U.N. Security Council, of which Britain is a permanent member, should be immediately briefed as soon as the inspections are complete and then “every effort” should be made to secure a resolution from the Security Council backing military action, the motion said.
Though decisive action against Syria is strongly backed by many in the U.S. Congress, a growing number of lawmakers are pressing the president to consult them and receive congressional authorization before ordering use of force.
The prospect of a Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg next Thursday may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes. Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.
“The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted Wednesday. As diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States met at the United Nations, Moscow said Britain was “premature” in seeking a Security Council resolution for “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.
But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: “The Syrians cannot continue to hide behind Russian intransigence at the Security Council.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia and China might veto the move but added: “It’s time the U.N. Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.”
A senior Western diplomat said: “Of course there will be a Russian veto, but that’s part of the objective – to show that we tried everything and the Russians left us no choice.” the diplomat added: “The Americans want to go quickly.”
China’s official newspaper also criticized what it saw as a push for illegal, Iraq-style “regime change” – despite U.S. denials that Obama aims to overthrow Assad.
The U.S.-led NATO alliance said evidence pointed to Assad’s forces having used gas, calling it a threat to global security.
Ban’s special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said “international law is clear” in requiring council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders say precedents, including NATO’s bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war, allow them to protect civilians. One U.N. official said: “The U.N. is annoyed and feels the Western powers haven’t shared data or evidence with them, which is a problem. It kind of undercuts U.N. authority.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that U.S. action would be “a disaster for the region.”