West poised to take military action in Syria

Britain and US on brink of intervention, stressing regime change is not the goal

United States Secretary of State John Kerry departs after addressing the media on the Syrian situation. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

United States Secretary of State John Kerry departs after addressing the media on the Syrian situation. REUTERS/Gary Cameron


Britain and the United States appeared to be on the brink of military intervention in Syria yesterday, as British prime minister David Cameron recalled parliament, and the US defence secretary said American forces were ready to strike if instructed.

Mr Cameron announced that MPs would return to Westminster tomorrow, four days earlier than planned, to debate and vote on the UK’s response to last week’s alleged chemical attacks.

“This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict,” he said. “It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”

His comments came as US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the US was “ready to go” if the decision is made to intervene militarily in Syria. He said the US had “moved assets to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes”.

Four destroyers ready
The US navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and warplanes in the region, he told the BBC.

President Barack Obama had asked the Pentagon to provide him with “all options for all contingencies” and the US military has prepared for these options, he said.

While the US and Britain confirmed contingency plans for military intervention were in train, both countries stressed any military action would be limited, and there was no intention to depose the Assad regime.

“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.”

Opposition leader Ed Miliband said that while the Labour Party would consider supporting international action, it would only do so on the basis that it was legal, and had “clear and achievable” goals.

Meanwhile, the Arab League issued a statement holding the Syrian government responsible for last week’s chemical attack. The statement was interpreted as a signal of support for possible intervention, with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal calling on the international community to take a “serious and decisive” stand against the Syrian leader.

Syrian denial
Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said he “utterly and completely” rejected claims the Syrian government was responsible for last week’s chemical attacks.

With western leaders signalling their willingness to intervene in the Syrian conflict without a UN Security Council mandate, Britain and the US could seek Nato support for a military strike.

A Nato official told The Irish Times the organisation was monitoring the situation, but its members were “deeply concerned” by mounting evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. “The use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law,” he said.

While Western military intervention in Syria is likely to involve targeted punitive strikes, it is unlikely to begin until UN inspectors have left the region. The UN has indicated they may need until the end of the week to continue their work.