DAMASCUS, Syria – Momentum appeared to build Tuesday for Western military action against Syria, with the U.S. and France saying they are in position for a strike, while the government in Damascus vowed to use all possible measures to repel it.
The prospect of a dramatic U.S.-led intervention into Syria’s civil war stemmed from the West’s assertion — still not endorsed by U.N. inspectors — that President Bashar Assad’s government was responsible for an alleged chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus on Aug. 21 that the group Doctors Without Borders says killed 355 people. Assad denies the claim.
The Arab League also threw its weight behind calls for punitive action, blaming the Syrian government for the attack and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament to hold an emergency vote Thursday on his country’s response. It is unlikely that any international military action would begin before then.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said U.S. military forces stand ready to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order, and French President Francois Hollande said France was “ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents.”
Obama is weighing a response focused narrowly on punishing Assad for violating international agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons. Officials said the goal was not to drive Assad from power or impact the broader trajectory of Syria’s bloody civil war, now in its third year.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday the West should be under no illusion that bombing Syrian military targets would help end the violence in Syria, an ally of Moscow, and he pointed to the volatile situations in Iraq and Libya that he said resulted from foreign military intervention.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country would use “all means available” to defend itself.
“We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone,” he said.
At a news conference in Damascus, al-Moallem challenged Washington to present proof to back up its accusations and he also likened the allegations to false American charges in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion of that country.
“They have a history of lies — Iraq,” he said.
Vice-President Joe Biden said there was no question that Assad was responsible for the attack — the highest-ranking U.S. official to say so — and the White House dismissed as “fanciful” the notion that anyone other than Assad could be to blame.
“Suggestions that there’s any doubt about who’s responsible for this are as preposterous as a suggestion that the attack did not occur,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
A U.S. official said some of the evidence includes signals intelligence — information gathered from intercepted communications. The U.S. assessment is also based on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed, and witness accounts. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
“Syria is not an easy case. We have defenses which will surprise others,” Muallem said during a news conference on Tuesday in the capital Damascus.
“We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal,” he said. “The second choice is the best: we will defend ourselves.”
Muallem also stated that any military action against Syria would serve the interests of Israel and al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting against the Syrian government.
“The war effort led by the United States and their allies will serve the interests of Israel and secondly al-Nusra Front,” the Syrian foreign minister said.
In the last few days, US officials have repeatedly referred to “surgical strikes” on Syrian military installations while discussing US military options for the Arab country.
The call for military action against Syria intensified after the foreign-backed opposition forces accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of launching a chemical attack on militant strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus last week.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to set the groundwork for US military action against Syria by leveling chemical weapons accusations against the Assad government.
In Tuesday’s news conference, the Syrian foreign minister challenged the US and its allies to present evidence that the government had used chemical weapons.
“We are hearing war drums around us. If they want to launch an attack against Syria, I think using the excuse of chemical weapons is not true at all. I challenge them to show what proof they have,” Muallem said.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that President Barack Obama was still undecided about launching a military strike, saying that Washington was not considering “boots on the ground” option.
However, France, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other opponents of the Syrian government, are pushing for a US offensive against Syria.
Russia urged the West not to jump to conclusions on the chemical weapons attack, and await the findings of a UN inspection team that on Monday examined the area in Damascus suburbs, where the alleged attack reportedly killed hundreds of people.
All countries should wait for the results of the probe and “show prudence and avoid tragic mistakes” by jumping to conclusions about the incident, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Sunday.
“Our American and European partners must understand what catastrophic consequences this kind of politics would have for the region, for the Arab and Islamic world as a whole,” Lukashevich said, advising the West to avoid military action against Syria.