UN inspectors collect samples from gas attack site
Experts take samples from corpses as Western powers consider military strikes
The United Nations said secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was confident the team could get the data it needs. Speculation has been mounting that Western countries will order some kind of military response to an incident that took place a year after Mr Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would require strong action.
In neighbouring Israel, citizens have been queuing up for gas masks, in case Assad were to respond to a Western attack by firing on Israel, as Iraq’s Saddam did in 1991. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel said any operation would be coordinated with allies: “The United States is looking at all options regarding the situation in Syria. We’re working with our allies and the international community.”
British prime minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to lead a top-level security meeting. Mr Obama, Mr Cameron and French president Francois Hollande all spoke to each other and to other allies in the past few days in a flurry of phone calls. Cameron also called Russian president Vladimir Putin today.
Several Nato countries have issued statements pledging a response, although none has been specific about what is planned. Top military officers of the United States, Britain, France, other Nato allies and the main anti-Assad countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, met in Jordan today to discuss Syria, diplomats there said.
The conference was pre-planned but had taken on new significance because of the latest events, the diplomats said. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, a co-host of the meeting with his Jordanian counterpart, has been one of the voices in Washington urging caution and emphasising the costs of a full-scale military intervention in a war in the heart of the Middle East.
Mr Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq and is winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, is reluctant to engage in another war. He could look at limited options such as a missile strike to punish Assad without dragging Washington deeper into the fight.
On the ground today, rebel forces took control of a strategic town in northern Syria, killing more than 50 pro-government fighters and cutting off government forces’ only supply route out of the city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Britain-based Observatory also said it had obtained a photograph showing the execution of Alawite cleric Badr Ghazal by hardline Islamist rebels, highlighting the growing sectarian bloodshed of the two-year conflict. In Aleppo, rebels led by Islamist militant groups captured Khanasir, a town that sits on the government supply route connecting the northern province to the central city of Hama. The rebel gain will leave government forces besieged in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory, which opposes President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The move hampers Assad’s forces options for counterattack against the large swathes of rebel held territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border.