Syrians prepare for attack as Britain seeks UN backing
UN chief appeals for unity as Russia cries foul
Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they escort a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of chemical weapons experts at one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus’ suburbs of Zamalka today. Photograph: Reuters
People in Damascus stocked up on supplies today and some left homes close to potential targets as US officials sketched out plans for multi-national air strikes on Syria that could last for days.
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.
But as UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that president Bashar al-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 UN Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorise military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians - a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China.
The United States and its allies say a UN veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a manoeuvre to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, Nato and Turkey also condemned Assad.
Washington has repeatedly said that president Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order. A senior US 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 today.
Western armies are expected to wait until the UN experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Mr Ban said they need four days to complete the work.
A second US official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future. Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defences and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high, lifting US energy shares and the overall US market.
But some emerging markets closed lower again today because of investor jitters over where the international escalation of Syria’s civil war might lead - however much Mr Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission. Neighbouring Turkey, a Nato member, put its forces on alert. Israel mobilised some army reservists and bolstered its defences against missile strikes from either Syria or Lebanon.
Syria’s envoy to the United Nations said he had asked Mr Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups. People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes. In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighbourhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it. “Every street, every neighbourhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city centre. “Where do we hide?” At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.