Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has denied ordering an alleged chemical weapons attack said to have killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus countryside on August 21st.
He also warned that US military operations designed to degrade his forces could change the course of the war in favour of rebels and radical jihadis, causing regional chaos, and that his allies could retaliate.
Dr Assad’s government has blamed the attacks on rebels seeking to draw in the US and its western allies at a time when the military has gone over to the offensive.
His denial coincided with yesterday's report in Germany's Bild am Sonntag saying that he repeatedly refused to authorise the deployment of such weapons, quoting German intelligence sources who said commanders had been requesting authorisation for more than four months.
Bild said intelligence on the strikes had been based on radio intercepts by a German naval ship sailing off the Syrian coast.
In his weekly radio address, US president Barack Obama called on US citizens to back an attack on Syria, promising that such strikes would not constitute a full-scale war like those in Iraq or Afghanistan.
US secretary of state John Kerry, in Paris to secure Arab League support for US military action against Syria in retaliation for its purported use of chemical weapons, said he and Arab foreign ministers agreed that "Assad's deplorable use of chemical weapons crosses an international, global red line".
He said an “unbelievably small, limited” military strike will be enough to halt Syria’s use of chemical weapons and hasten a political settlement to the civil war. As Congress got set to debate a US intervention, Mr Kerry sought to reassure the public that the Obama administration won’t let a Syrian campaign evolve into a years-long commitment with ground troops, such as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We’re not talking about war, we’re not going to war,” Mr Kerry said in a press conference in London today after a three- day mission to Europe.
He spoke of a "limited, very targeted, very short-term effort." Syria's bid to frustrate that effort took foreign minister Walid al-Muallem to Moscow today, seeking a joint approach with Russia to defuse Western assertions that the Syrian regime is using chemical munitions against its own people.
The two allies called for a peace conference instead of US strikes.
Mr Kerry’s tour yielded a European Union appeal to work through the United Nations, French determination to side with the US, support from as-yet undisclosed Arab countries and denunciations of Dr Assad from Britain, the American ally in prior Middle Eastern wars which will stay out of this one.
There is no Arab consensus on proposed US military action. While the Gulf monarchies back strikes, Egypt, Algeria and Syria's neighbours, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, oppose them. Consequently, discussions apparently focused on possible deferral of military strikes until after UN experts report on the findings of their investigations in Syria and after a possible recourse to the UN Security Council.
Mr Kerry said the US had agreed to provide evidence to ministers unconvinced that Dr Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks.
Mr Kerry also acknowledged that there must be a political rather than a military solution to the Syrian crisis.
Plan for strikes
The Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon has made contingency plans for 72 hours of intense strikes not only designed to deter Syria from using chemical weapons but also to degrade its forces.
In Syria, rebels and jihadi fighters remained in control of the heights above the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, 60km (37 miles) north of Damascus, while government forces continued to fight for possession of the town, a proposed Unesco world heritage site.
Maaloula is built into the cliffs of rugged mountains where Christians constructed the churches of St Sergius and St Takla. In the vanguard of the campaign to wrest control of the town is Jabhat al-Nusra, the most effective fighting arm of the local al-Qaeda franchise.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said: "The army pulled back to the outskirts . . . and [rebel and jihadi fighters] are in total control of Maaloula now."
However, video from news channel Russia Today showed government forces at the town’s entrance arches being fired upon by jihadi snipers on buildings. A resident of the town said these forces, largely composed of Tunisians, Moroccans, Chechens and Libyans, attacked both civilian homes and churches as many townspeople fled. One church has been torched and two others have been pillaged, the resident said.
Jihadis were said to have forced Christians to convert to Islam or face beheading.
Syrian state news agency Sana, however, reported that military operations were ongoing and the churches were “safe”.
In Baghdad, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif expressed concern about "warmongering in this region", while Iraqi parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi warned that any "military strike will not be beneficial for Syria and will ignite a fire that will possibly engulf Iraq and nearby countries".