U.S. officials planning potential military strikes on Syria aren’t limited to a one-day operation, an administration official said, as the UN Security Council’s permanent members considered a resolution condemning last week’s suspected chemical attack.
The U.S. and its allies are still working to define goals for a military strike on Syria, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing war-planning efforts. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said today the United Nations resolution offered by his country would authorize action to protect civilians in Syria.
U.S. and British officials say there’s little doubt that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are responsible for the chemical attacks near Damascus that opposition groups say killed more than 1,300 people. The head of the UN said its inspectors in Syria need time to establish the facts.
The U.K. resolution would allow the use of “all necessary measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to protect civilians from chemical weapons,” Cameron’s office in London said in an e-mailed statement. The veto-wielding permanent Security Council members -- the U.S., U.K., Russia, China and France -- were meeting in New York to discuss the draft. Russia, an ally of Syria with a naval base in the country, has so far opposed moves to censure Assad’s government.
Having ruled out an operation aimed at overthrowing Assad, the Obama administration is seeking to clarify its objectives, plan for possible retaliatory moves by Assad to strike out against allies and neighbors and establish the legal justification for an attack before committing itself to military action, the official said. Assad and his government have denied using chemical weapons.
UN chemical inspectors today visited the site of alleged attacks in the Ghouta area, near Damascus, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference in The Hague. The inspectors, who now have spent two days at the site, need a total of four days to complete their investigation, Ban said.
“The team needs time to do its job,” Ban said. “It is essential to establish the facts.”
The alleged attack has fueled calls for deeper global involvement in the 2 1/2-year Syrian civil war, with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal calling for a “decisive and serious international stance,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported today.
As part of the U.S. buildup toward action, President Barack Obama plans to release an intelligence assessment of the Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta, and his administration has begun consultations with congressional leaders.
Cameron discussed the “serious response” with Obama last night, adding that it will be “specific to the chemical-weapons attack,” according to an e-mailed statement from his office. Cameron summoned Parliament back from its summer recess to debate the matter tomorrow.
The U.K. National Security Council met today and “agreed unanimously” on a recommendation that the cabinet will consider tomorrow, according to an e-mailed statement from Cameron’s office that didn’t give specifics of the plan.
“Ministers agreed that the Assad regime was responsible for this attack and that the world shouldn’t stand idly by, and that any response should be legal, proportionate and specifically to protect civilians by deterring further chemical weapons use,” according to the statement.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said the use of chemical weapons in Syria “is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered.” Information from “a wide variety of sources points to the Syrian regime as responsible,” NATO said in a statement after representatives of 28 allied governments met in Brussels.“Those responsible must be held accountable.”
French President Francois Hollande recalled Parliament to meet Sept. 4, the government said today.
The U.S. is concerned that allowing the Syrian government to go unpunished would send a signal to other countries including North Korea that have large inventories of chemical weapons, as well as making it likely that the Assad government will attack civilians with such weapons again, the U.S. official said.
Obama officials are still in consultations with NATO allies including the U.K., France, Germany, and Turkey as well as Arab nations to determine which countries would participate in a military strike on Syria, the official said.
Among options being explored are how to deter and degrade Syria’s chemical-weapons capability and defeat the Assad government’s defense capability, another U.S. official said.
“The Americans, the British and others say that they know that chemical weapons have been used; what we have been told is that this evidence is going to be shared with us,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, told a news conference in Geneva today. “It hasn’t been until now, and we will be very interested to hear what this evidence is.”
Brahimi said that “international law is clear: It says military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council.”
It’s “premature” to talk about a UN resolution authorizing measures against Syria while the investigation is continuing, the Interfax news agency cited Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov as saying.
‘Assets in Place’
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC in comments aired yesterday that the U.S. has “assets in place” and forces are “ready to go.” Another U.S. official said a no-fly zone over Syria or using troops on the ground aren’t being considered.
The U.S. has repositioned naval assets in the Mediterranean in case the Obama administration decides to take military action, the first official said. The U.S. has supplied Turkey with two Patriot batteries that can shoot down short- and medium-range missiles.
Israel’s military bolstered defenses near the northern border, deploying a second Iron Dome missile defense system outside the city of Haifa and putting an Arrow missile defense battery on alert for medium-range weapons, the Ynet news site reported, without saying where it got the information.
The confrontation with Syria will be at the forefront when Obama, Cameron and Hollande join other leaders of the Group of 20 nations next week in St. Petersburg, Russia. The host for the summit is Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Assad who has thwarted previous action against Syria at the UN and questioned whether a chemical attack took place.
One U.S. official who asked not to be identified said the timing of any decision or a military attack isn’t tied to the summit on Sept. 5 and Sept. 6.
China has also signaled opposition. The People’s Daily newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party, carried an editorial today saying that some countries had passed a “verdict” on Syria before all facts were in and that action should only be taken in response to reliable investigations.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a strike on Syria would be a “disaster for the region,” according to the state-run Iranian Students News Agency. “This kindling of fire is like a spark in a room stocked with explosives because the consequences of it are unknown,” he was quoted as saying today in a meeting with officials.
The prospect of a military confrontation has rumbled through markets. Stock markets in the Middle East slumped for a second day today. West Texas Intermediate crude surged to the highest price since May 2011.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it began in March 2011, and more than 2 million refugees have poured into neighboring countries, according to the UN.
In Syria, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said yesterday the government won’t surrender. “We have the means to defend ourselves, and we will surprise people with them,” he told a news conference in Damascus.
“It’s important to send a message to Assad that this is not about regime change but also to send a message that hurts,” Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, said in an interview.