Syrian opposition told to expect strikes
UN weapons inspectors delay Damascus site visit in response to sniper attack
Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem speaks during a press conference in Damascus yesterday. He said his country had defences that would “suprise” its antagonists. Photograph: AP
Western envoys have told opposition Syrian National Coalition leaders in Istanbul to expect strikes on Damascus within days, as Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said Damascus was prepared to “confront the whole world” to defend the country.
“We have two options: to surrender or defend ourselves with the means at our disposal . . . We will defend ourselves,” he told a press conference. He said his country had defences that would “surprise” its antagonists.
Mr Muallem said allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons in the Damascus area was a “pretext” to initiate a military campaign designed to serve the interests of Israel and al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra.
United Nations inspectors investigating suspected chemical weapons attacks in Damascus have postponed their next site visit until today, having come under sniper fire on their way to a site visit on Monday
“Following yesterday’s attack on the UN convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team,” a UN statement said.
Mr Muallem claimed the weapons inspection team had been delayed until today after insurgents refused to guarantee the team’s security
“Syria can’t remove evidence in areas that are under militants’ control,” he said. He also asked: “Where were the UN inspectors when we requested them to inspect sites [of earlier chemical weapons use] five months ago?
“If this . . . campaign is meant to undermine the morale of our people, I believe [western leaders] are mistaken. The people of Syria are united with their armed forces and leadership.”
Several sources attending a meeting in Istanbul on Monday between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments told Reuters that the rebels were told to expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace.
“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.
In spite of the cancellation by the US of a planned meeting today with Russian diplomats to prepare for the repeatedly postponed Syria peace conference in Geneva, the envoys in Istanbul including former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a hawk on Syria, told the opposition coalition to prepare for the conference, now slated for October.
Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov expressed regret over the postponement of the Russian-US meeting, while foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich called on the West to be rational and “reasonable” over Syria.
Ankara could offer Nato allies the use of its military airbase at Incirlik and said it would take part in any military action against Syria whether mandated by the UN Security Council or not. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has termed the alleged use of chemical weapons by Damascus as “a crime against humanity” and said it “should not go unanswered”.