US, western allies ready to strike Syria - Defence Secretary

By The Citizen

The United States and its western allies will launch attacks against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military and communication infrastructure, any moment from now.

As a prelude to the military action, envoys from the U.S and its allies have told rebels fighting al-Assad that Western powers could attack Syria within days, sources who attended the meeting told Reuters yesterday.

Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul on Monday between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments told Reuters Tuesday that the rebels were told to expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace deal.

'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.

To U.S. Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, American forces in the region are 'ready to go', as Washington and its European and Middle Eastern partners honed plans to punish Assad for a major poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.

'We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,' Hagel told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

As part of Western powers' strategy, the United Kingdom (UK) Parliament is to be recalled tomorrow to discuss possible responses.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the world could not stand idly by after seeing appalling scenes of death and suffering caused by suspected chemical weapons attacks.

President Francois Hollande said yesterday that France was 'ready to punish' those behind last week's alleged deadly chemical attack in Syria, adding that the conflict threatens 'world peace'.

'France is ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people,' he said in a televised speech, pointing the finger of blame at President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But Syria's foreign minister struck a defiant tone  yesterday amid growing international calls for a military response, denying his nation is hindering inspectors and warning Western leaders against an attack.

'Syria is not easy to swallow,' Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday at a news conference. 'We have the materials to defend ourselves. We will surprise others,' he said.

Syria's opposition said more than 1,300 people died when toxic gases were unleashed last Wednesday as regime forces bombarded rebel zones east and southwest of Damascus.

United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off a second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

Washington said it already held Assad responsible for a 'moral obscenity' and 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.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Obama, as well as 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 Assad is overthrown.

In France, which took a vocal lead in helping Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Hollande was about to address ambassadors. A French diplomatic source said Paris had no doubt 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 Assad's government responsible for the chemical attack.

In Saudi Arabia, the rebels' leading regional sponsor, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called for 'a decisive and serious stand by the international community to stop the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian people.'

Also, fears of international conflict hit some financial markets, notably in neighbouring Turkey, as well as emerging economies that could be hit hard by a chill in world trade.

But Israelis have been claiming state-issued gas masks in case Syria responds to a Western attack by firing missiles at Israel, as Saddam did in 1991. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to 'respond forcefully' to any attempt to target it.

Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 states in the Friends of Syria group, including Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel.

Also, a report by Agence France Presse (AFP) confirmed that Syria's opposition expects a Western military intervention against al-Assad's regime within days and has been consulted over targets, one of its officials said yesterday.

'There is no precise timing … but one can speak of an imminent international intervention against the regime. It's a question of days and not weeks,' said Ahmad Ramadan, a Syrian National Coalition political committee member.

Ramadan said airports, military bases and arms depots would be targeted.

But Iran's Defence Minister Hossein Dehqan warned Tuesday that any Western military action against Tehran-ally, Syria, would threaten the stability and security of the region.

'In case of military action against Syria, the region's security and stability will be threatened,' Dehqan told the official IRNA news agency.

'This definitely will not be in the interest of those fanning violence,' the brigadier general said, referring to Western backers of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Vatican's official daily  and mouthpiece yesterday criticised global powers for preparing possible military action against Syria despite an ongoing United Nations (UN) investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

'The tones are becoming ever more drastic and the action being taken by the United Nations appears subjected to a sort of crossfire,' the newspaper said.

'Various international actors appear no longer to consider the investigation a determining factor,' it said, adding that 'what commitment there was' to a negotiated settlement 'appears to be dying out'.

The Vatican's permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva, Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, last week cast doubt on the Syrian regime's responsibility for the apparent chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus.