US military 'ready' for Syria strike, awaits Obama's order

Defense Secretary Hagel tells BBC forces are in place to act immediately over alleged chemical weapons attack

The media countdown to possible Western military action in Syria gathered momentum Tuesday as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that the U.S. military is "ready to go" if President Barack Obama orders action in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks, and British Prime Minister David Cameron called an emergency session of parliament to debate the issue.

"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel said in the interview. Cameron's spokesman said earlier that Britain and its allies believed that the alleged chemical attacks in Syria requires international action and that Western powers are considering a "proportionate response."

Cameron later clarified that the U.K. has not made a decision on whether to take action in Syria, adding that any military action must be "specific" and that Britain does not want to involve itself in the country's civil war. U.S. officials quoted by the Washington Post expressed a similar preference for a limited "punishment" action to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons and for avoiding entanglement in the country's power struggle.

The warnings of imminent action come in response to allegations last week that hundreds of civilians were killed in poison gas attacks. Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011, but Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday described the alleged attacks as a "moral obscenity" that demanded accountability.

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Cameron recalled parliament from its summer recess for a Thursday session on the crisis, and France's President Francois Hollande vowed to "punish" Syria for what he said was its use of chemical weapons. "This mass chemical massacre cannot go unanswered," he said. During a phone call, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper concurred with Obama on the need for an "effective and timely" response. 

The Arab League issued a statement Tuesday that blamed the Syrian regime for the alleged gas attacks and demanded that the perpetrators be "brought to justice." Yet later Tuesday, the group declined to back a retaliatory attack against Syria, according to The New York Times.

Reuters, citing anonymous sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul between international envoys and the opposition Syrian National Coalition, reported that Western powers have told Syria to expect a strike within days. And CNN quoted an administration official as saying the White House hoped to complete any Syria action before next week, when the president is due to travel to Russia.

Syria, for its part, continued to deny having used chemical weapons, and its foreign minister, Walid Moualem, vowed on Tuesday that any attack on the country would be repulsed. And the foreign ministry of Iran, which is a stalwart backer of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, warned that military intervention would have "perilous consequences for the region." 

Experts believe that rather than act alone, the Obama administration would seek some form of international or regional mandate -- even if U.N. authorization remains unlikely, given the firm opposition to any armed intervention in Syria by Russia and China, which have veto power on the U.N. Security Council.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of the "extremely dangerous consequences of a possible new military intervention" and said a military strike without Security Council authorization would be illegal.

A U.N. team is currently in Syria investigating the incident, but its mandate is simply to determine whether chemical weapons were used -- not who used them.

On Monday the team's convoy was hit by sniper fire when it first attempted to investigate the site. The team was later able to reach its destination to conduct inspections and consultations with local residents.

It's not clear who fired at the U.N. vehicles.

However, a spokesperson for the U.N. said follow-up investigations planned for Tuesday were being postponed until Wednesday to ensure security.

"Following yesterday's attack on the U.N. convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team," the spokesperson said in a statement.

With U.N. authorization for military action unlikely in the near term, the U.S. would be forced to seek international legitimacy for Syria strikes in alternative multilateral bodies such as NATO and the Arab League.

But with the Arab League's rejection of a retaliatory strike President Obama may be left without the broad regional support he is seeking.

Gen. Wesley Clark, who was NATO supreme commander during the Kosovo war, had signaled that backing from groups such as the Arab League would be a crucial step before the U.S. decides to take action. "You have to start by building a coalition of the willing around a regional organization," Clark said.  

Prior to the Arab League's declaration, Anja Manuel, a Stanford University international-relations professor and former State Department official, had said Washington would likely be able to count on support from a number of Arab states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia because "they have been supporting the rebels in Syria for several years now -- not always the rebel groups that America would support, but they might be brought around to cooperating with us."  

But Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public-policy research organization, said that the U.S. mission is unlikely to go so far as picking particular sides or toppling Assad. Rather, Obama wants to enforce the chemical weapons "red line" he first mentioned in 2012.

"You essentially have two different approaches to an American military action in Syria," Laurenti said.

"One is a military intervention that is designed to change the military dynamic on the ground by deeply degrading the government's military capabilities, a wide-ranging air attack on Assad's forces, so whichever of the disparate rebel groups might be able to take advantage of the government's loss of capability and help bring down the regime. The other is purposefully limited to enforce President Obama's red line that aims at deterring the Syrian government from using them again as the civil war continues, to put money where Obama's mouth was. My sense is the second."

The most widely shared prediction among analysts on the form taken by any possible U.S. military action is a barrage of sea-launched cruise missiles targeting Syrian military installations and artillery batteries deemed complicit in the alleged chemical weapons attack.

Wilson Dizard contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and wire services.  

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