Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday, August 27, that the American military is ready to act if President Obama orders retaliation against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons on its own citizens that took place on Wednesday, August 21. Hagel warned that immediate action may be needed in order to prevent a repeat attack and top US officials said a US strike on Syria could take place as early as Thursday.
Video coverage showed thousands of Syrians fighting for their lives in the aftermath of the heinous attack. Reports have indicated that close to 400 died as a result of the poison gas.
Hagel said that the U.S. military had "moved assets in place" and would be able to "fulfill and comply" with any option Obama wishes to take.
The Associated Press says the U.S. is expected to make public on a "more formal determination" of a use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Syrian government has denied launching any chemical attacks and has blamed rebels for last's week.
News sources report that the U.S. and several other Western powers are considering a limited, targeted response to Damascus' use of chemical weapons in order to send a harsh rebuke to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
British news reports says the United Kingdom is preparing contingency plans for possible military action in Syria.
A United Nations team is currently in Syria to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons but its mission was delayed Tuesday due to security concerns. A statement by the UN said the team had planned to inspect one of the suburbs after traveling to another affected district, Moadamiyeh, the day before. That visit was marred by sniper fire on a U.N. vehicle.
The United Nations said an assessment of the sniper fire determined that the team should wait until Wednesday before conducting another inspection, in order to "improve preparedness and safety."
While there on Monday, however, the UN inspectors took blood samples from the victims of last week's attack that killed entire families in their homes. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the inspectors were satisfied with their meetings with doctors and victims. A top U.S. official says any evidence of a poison gas attack may be corrupted because the Syrian government kept the team from visiting the sites for five days.
The Syrian government and rebels blamed each other for the sniper attack, which damaged the U.N. vehicle but caused no casualties.
Both sides also accuse each other of responsibility for the use of chemical weapons on the civilian population last Wednesday.
Western powers have vowed to hold the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for the August 21 killings, raising the prospect of their first armed intervention in Syria's two-year conflict.
But, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday the government will defend itself against any attack and surprise its enemies.
He also warned that Western attacks on Syria would serve the interests of its sworn enemy, Israel, as well as al-Qaeda militants. The Assad regime has assigned blame to them for inspiring the endless violence and for perpetuating the protracted civil war.
On Monday, a top Syrian official warned that if attacked, Syria will react against Israel. Syrian Deputy Information Minister Halaf Al-Maftah claimed that Iraq, Lebanon and Iran would join Syria in hitting Israel if Western nations attack in Syria, and that Syria has “strategic weapons” it could use against the Jewish state. On Tuesday, Israel National News reported that Israel will strike back “fiercely” if Syria should launch an attack against them.
“The state of Israel is prepared for every scenario,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we detect any attempt to hurt us, we will react, and react fiercely,” he added.
INN also reported that Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avigdor Lieberman made similar comments to Netanyahu’s earlier in the day. Israel “may have no choice” but to get involved in the fighting in Syria, Lieberman warned, adding, “I hope that everyone knows how to read the map correctly and understand that Israel has no interest in entering the whirlpool of the Arab world.”
Israeli leaders have reportedly asked the U.S. to give them advanced notice of any plan to launch strikes on Syria. As the specter of a possible attack looms closer, an Israeli official said that many Israelis are scurrying to replace old or missing gas masks. Syria is thought to have one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenal, and the largest in the Middle East. Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told public radio that, "If and when Israel is attacked we shall react, that's not new. If we respond we shall respond seriously, as all our enemies in the region know," he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron instructed his nation's parliament to return from its summer recess on Thursday to decide on a response to the alleged Syrian government chemical assault. U.S. officials said a decision on Washington's response could come within days.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denounced the Syrian government's alleged chemical weapon attacks near Damascus as a "crime against humanity" and said it must "not go unanswered."
But, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said her nation, a close ally of Washington, will not take part in any military action against Syria without a U.N. Security Council mandate. The Italian military's resources have been under strain from its longtime deployment of troops in Afghanistan.
China's state news agency Xinhua also cautioned against a rush to Western military action. In a commentary published Tuesday, it said the world should remember that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began with U.S. allegations that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons were never found.
In another development, the Russian news agency Interfax said a Russian government cargo plane landed in the Syrian port of Latakia on Tuesday, delivering 20 tons of humanitarian aid for Syria's war-weary people. It said the plane also will evacuate 180 people, more than 100 of them Russian, from the country.
Moscow, a key ally of the Assad government, also has warned against Western intervention in Syria. On Tuesday, Russia warned again that any military intervention in Syria would have "catastrophic consequences" for the region.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that launching a military strike without seeking approval from the United Nations Security Council would cause "new suffering and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa," according to the Russian TV station RT.
Lukashevich said the USA and other world leaders should "demonstrate prudence (and) strict observance of international law, especially the fundamental principles of the U.N. charter." Russia has vowed to veto any Security Council attempts to approve a military attack on Syria, and it is arming Syria as well, which is why the United States is considering a unilateral attack with the help of the United Kingdom and other nations.
Also on Tuesday, the US postponed a meeting with Russian officials scheduled for later this week to discuss the situation in Syria. Russia and China have repeatedly blocked actions at the United Nations to impose sanctions on the Syrian government for assaults on the civilian population during the civil war.
Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation said that Russian leaders are likely to increase aid to Syria in case of a U.S. strike, and to take action elsewhere in the region that could hurt U.S. interests.
On Monday, a White House spokesman said there was "very little doubt" that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the alleged use of the weapons a "moral obscenity."
Stephen Zunes, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of San Francisco, says while there is pressure on the United States to take military action, there are limits to what strikes can accomplish.
"The impulse is quite understandable, but on a practical level it does not seem that it would make such a difference in terms of the military balance given that the rebel forces are divided into literally hundreds of different militia, some of which are as anti-Western or more so than the regime," said Zunes.
U.S. military planners have a range of air, naval and ground assets that could be used against Syria in a possible military attack. Alexandria, Virginia-based security analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.Org said the U.S. military has four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the Mediterranean, in the 6th Fleet Area of Responsibility.
Two of them are in the eastern Mediterranean, close to the Syrian coast.
Pike said each destroyer has the capacity to hold almost 100 Tomahawk missiles and likely carries at least dozens of the weapons.
U.S. manufacturer Raytheon says the missile can "circle for hours, shift course instantly on command, and can beam a picture of its target to controllers halfway around the world."
Other U.S. naval assets in the Middle East include two aircraft carriers: the USS Harry S. Truman in the Red Sea and the USS Nimitz in the North Arabian Sea.
The United States could send additional warplanes into Syria from air bases that it shares with allies in Europe and the Gulf.
Regional air bases
Turkey is home to two of the nearest air bases to Syria: Incirlik and Izmir. U.S. warplanes in Western Europe also could be positioned closer to the region by moving to Italy or Bulgaria.
Deploying U.S. fighter jets from Gulf air bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman would be trickier. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia oppose Assad, but any warplanes heading from their territory toward Syria would need permission to fly over one of three other Arab states.
In an interview with the French news agency Monday, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraq will "not agree to any use of our airspace... to attack any neighboring country."
The other nations, Egypt and Jordan, have not said whether they would allow overflights of their territory as part of any military action against the Syrian government.
Pike said long flight paths from the Gulf to Syria also could require airborne refueling for U.S. warplanes. He said it would be "more straightforward" for the United States to use aircraft in Turkey or move its two aircraft carriers from nearby waters into the Mediterranean.
The U.S. military also has hundreds of personnel in Jordan, based at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center northeast of Amman.
The personnel include staff of the U.S. Central Command and members of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division who were sent to the kingdom earlier this year to help Jordanian troops respond to any attacks from Syria or a spillover of chemical weapons.
In addition to troops, the U.S. military sent Patriot air defense missiles and F16 fighters to Jordan for a military exercise in June, and kept them there when it was over.
Pike said any U.S. military operation using these forces likely would have one of two main objectives: restoring U.S. deterrence against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, or taking those weapons out of the hands of Syria's combatants.
"What Obama has to do to restore deterrence is inflict so much pain on the Assad regime that it will refrain from using chemical weapons again," he said.
He said it appears the Obama administration favors carrying out a small-scale strike using missiles rather than warplanes. Such a strike could target government or security buildings or even the Syrian air force.
But Pike said justifying attacks on such targets could be challenging for the United States.
"Inevitably people will say why did you blow that up? You could blow up Assad's palaces, and people will say that looks too much like assassination. You could hit his security buildings and air force, but people would ask what they have to do with chemical weapons."
Alternatively, the United States could try to destroy or secure Syria's suspected chemical weapon stockpiles to ensure they cannot be used in the conflict, two options that also entail major risks.
Pike said destroying the stockpiles with air or missile strikes risks dispersing poisonous gasses and harming the population.
"I don't think the Obama administration has much appetite for that," said Pike. "But securing the stockpiles probably would require thousands of troops and lead to Americans getting killed."