Western powers poised to attack Syria within days
White House says it plans to release intelligence dossier on gas attack
US forces in the region are “ready to go”, defense secretary Chuck Hagel said, as Washington and its European and Middle Eastern partners honed plans to punish the Assad regime for a major poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.
Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments said 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.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 states in the Friends of Syria group, including Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel.
The White House this evening ruled out any military effort to oust Dr Assad from power. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”
US president Barack Obama is considering cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets. Mr Carney said the United States expects to release in coming days a public version of a formal report by the US intelligence community on the use of chemical weapons. The report is expected to conclude the Syrian government was responsible for the attack. Any attempt at “regime change” by the United States would draw the United States deeply into a conflict that Mr Obama has been determined to avoid.
United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples yesterday, put off a second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Washington said it already held Dr Assad responsible for a “moral obscenity” and US president Barack Obama would hold him to account for it.
However, with Russian and Chinese opposition complicating efforts to satisfy international law - and Western voters wary of new, far-off wars - Western leaders may not pull the trigger just yet.
British prime minister David Cameron called parliament back from its summer recess for a session on Syria on Thursday. He and Mr Obama, as well as French president Francois Hollande, face tough questions about how an intervention, likely to be limited to air strikes, will end - and whether they risk handing power to anti-Western Islamist rebels if Dr Assad is overthrown.
In France, which took a vocal lead in helping Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gadafy in 2011, Mr Hollande was about to address ambassadors.
A French diplomatic source said Paris had no doubt Dr Assad’s forces carried out the gas attack and would “not shirk its responsibilities” in responding.
In an indication of support from Arab states that may help Western powers argue the case for war against likely UN vetoes from Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding Dr Assad’s government responsible for the chemical attack.