U.S., U.K. Mull Response to Syria Chemical Allegations

The U.S. and U.K. are examining “all the options” in response to the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons, with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicating forces are ready to strike if ordered.

President Barack Obama spoke by phone with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and the two leaders share “grave concern” on the reports of alleged chemical weapons use, a White House statement issued after the 40-minute phone call said. Cameron’s office said the two leaders reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons “would merit a serious response from the international community” and that both have “tasked officials to examine all the options.”

Obama is under increased pressure to intervene in Syria following allegations that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical arms in an Aug. 21 attack in a Damascus suburb that some opposition groups say killed 1,300 people.

In the suburb of Ghouta, the 322 deaths documented “so far” include 54 children, 82 women and dozens of rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based activist group, said yesterday. More than 180 people were killed across Syria yesterday, the Observatory said today.

Hagel said the U.S. military is ready to act if Obama orders a strike on Syria. “The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” he told reporters en route to Kuala Lumpur, the beginning of a week-long visit to the region.

‘Red Line’

Preparations include the repositioning of personnel and assets including ships, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres called for action against Assad. “It cannot be allowed for the world’s most dangerous regimes to have the world’s most dangerous weapons,” Netanyahu said today.

Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of Iran’s military, warned the U.S. of “serious consequences” if it crossed what he described as a “red line” on Syria, according to the state-run Fars news agency.

The Syrian government hasn’t used chemical weapons and will give UN inspectors access to the site of the alleged attack, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said, according to a Press TV report yesterday. The Syrian military also accused rebels of using chemical weapons, the state-run news agency Sana reported.

‘Detailed Review’

Obama met with his national security team yesterday to discuss the reports. U.S. intelligence officials along with international partners are continuing to gather evidence about what happened, according to a White House statement issued after the meeting.

The president received “a detailed review of a range of potential options he had requested be prepared for the United States and the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons,” according to the White House statement.

“We, with our allies, are continuing to assess intelligence and the specifics of the intelligence on the use of chemical weapons” by Syria, Hagel said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. “I wouldn’t go any further than that until we have more intelligence based on facts.”

Top military officials from nine countries will meet in Amman, Jordan, in the next few days to discuss regional security, the state-run Petra news agency reported yesterday, citing a Jordanian military source. Representatives will attend from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Canada.

‘With Force’

The U.S. and the U.K. have pressed Assad’s government to allow United Nations inspectors to enter the site of the alleged attack to gather evidence. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on the world to respond “with force” to any use of chemical weapons.

Angela Kane, the UN disarmament affairs envoy, arrived in Damascus yesterday to press the Syrian government to allow experts to investigate the allegations, The Associated Press reported. Kane didn’t speak to reporters, the AP said.

Internet video and photos showed dead Syrians without visible wounds after the attack, and reports from local doctors were consistent with nerve gas or lethal exposure to pesticides.

Three hospitals in the Damascus area working with Doctors Without Borders received about 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to neurotoxins in less than three hours on the morning of Aug. 21, of whom 355 died, according to a statement posted on the charity’s website.

Lethal Exposure

While representatives of Doctors Without Borders haven’t been able to visit the hospitals because of security risks, medical personnel have described symptoms treated including convulsions, impaired vision and breathing difficulties, said Bart Janssens, operations director for the charity.

While Doctors Without Borders couldn’t confirm the cause, the symptoms strongly suggested exposure on a large scale to neurotoxins, the charity said.

The international community must “translate words into actions,” with or without UN Security Council approval, Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said at a news conference in Istanbul broadcast by al-Jazeera.

U.S. intervention in Syria must be part of a broad international effort, Hagel said, echoing Obama’s comments in an interview broadcast on CNN last week that the U.S. would need a UN mandate to act in Syria.

Hagel declined to specify how soon the U.S. would decide if military action is warranted against Assad’s regime.

“The international community is moving swiftly in getting facts on what did happen and getting the intelligence right and all the other factors that go into a decision will be made swiftly and should be made swiftly,” Hagel said.

The U.S. now has four destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Mediterranean Sea, compared with three that have been there for months, according to a U.S. official familiar with the forces there. None of the ships -- the USS Gravely, the USS Barry, the USS Mahan and the USS Ramage -- has been assigned a mission, the official said.

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