US moves for possible Syria strike

Written By komlim puldel on Sabtu, 24 Agustus 2013 | 20.02

The Pentagon is moving forces into place in case President Obama opts for military action against Syria.

  • France pledges force over alleged gas attack
  • 'Chemical' horror: Activists claim 1300 dead
  • Distressing images of victims released
  • Bodies lined shoulder-to-shoulder in tragedy

THE Pentagon is moving forces into place in case President Barack Obama opts for military action against Syria, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested on Friday US time.

Amid calls for military intervention after the Syrian regime carried out an alleged chemical weapons attack this week, US commanders have prepared a range of "options" for Obama if he chooses to launch an attack on the Damascus regime, Hagel told reporters aboard his plane en route to Malaysia.

He spoke as a defence official said the US Navy will expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles.

The US Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of letting it return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.

Three other destroyers are currently deployed in the region - the USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage.

The UN is increasing pressure on Syria to allow inspectors to visit the scene of an alleged chemical attack.

All four warships are equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The reinforcement allows the Pentagon to act more rapidly if Obama orders a military strike.

"The president has asked the Defence Department for options. Like always, the Defence Department is prepared and has been prepared to provide all options for all contingencies to the president of the United States," Hagel said.

The Pentagon chief and other defence officials made clear no decision had been taken on whether to employ military force against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

President Barack Obama says a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria this week is a "big event of grave concern". Picture: AP

US newspapers have suggested disagreements within the administration over the risks of another American military intervention in the Middle East.

Hagel, who visited US Marines in Hawaii on Thursday before setting off on a week-long tour of Southeast Asia, said he expected American intelligence agencies to "swiftly" assess whether the Syrian government indeed used chemical weapons.

He said the US government would work closely with its allies.

"The international community should and will act in concert on these kinds of issues," Hagel said.

This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show a young victim of an attack on Ghouta, Syria recuperating in a hospital. Picture: AP

Earlier, Barack Obama called a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria ''a big event of grave concern'' as the UN pressed Damascus to let inspectors visit the site of the alleged massacre.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sent Under Secretary General Angela Kane to Damascus for talks, his spokesman Eduardo del Buey said in a statement.

In an interview with CNN Obama said earlier the US was still seeking confirmation that toxic gases were used in Syria.

But he said such actions were "very troublesome" and were going to "require America's attention."

Syria has denied opposition claims that chemical attacks on several Damascus suburbs killed 1,300 people including children. Mana Rabiee reports.

However, Obama said the idea the US can solve Syria's civil war was "overstated."

The US has previously confirmed chemical weapons use in Syria, a step Obama has said would cross a "red line."

However, the American response has been minimal.

Obama's comments followed a call from UK Foreign Secretary William Hague for UN experts to be granted immediate access to the site near Damascus to investigate claims of the horrific gas attack on Wednesday that left hundreds dead.

Syrian rebels claim this  is one of the missiles carrying chemicals that targeted eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.

Evidence of the attack was deteriorating every day, Hague warned, who explicitly accused the Assad regime of carrying out the atrocity.

"We do believe this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale, but we would like the United Nations to be able to assess that," Hague said in a televised statement.

According to the UN, Ban Ki-Moon has already written to Damascus to request its cooperation in investigating Wednesday's reported attack.

Images released yesterday featuring the bodies of dead children lined up on the ground - some residents placed chunks of ice on the bodies to preserve them until burial - sparked international condemnation.

Activists said the Syrian regime killed at least 1300 people with toxic gas, although casualty estimates varied substantially.

The horrific story of chemical warfare

The latest developments come as France is seeking a reaction with "force" if a massacre in Syria involving chemical weapons is confirmed, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

"If it is proven, France's position is that there must be a reaction," Fabius told BFM-TV, speaking of a "reaction with force" while judging it "impossible" to send ground troops.

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube by the Arbeen unified press office allegedly shows dead sheep lying on the ground in eastern Ghouta.

Damascus has denied opposition claims that the regime unleashed the attack.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani condemned the use of chemical weapons.

"The situation prevailing in Syria today and the death of a certain number of innocent people caused by chemical weapons is very distressing,'' he said, adding that Iran, itself a victim of chemical attacks in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, ``totally and vigorously condemned the use of chemical weapons''.

Hague said there was "no other plausible explanation" than the use of chemical weapons for "casualties so intense, in such a small area, on this scale".

He added: "This is our priority at the moment: to make sure that a UN team can investigate on the ground and establish the facts."

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows Syrians carrying the body of a child into a mass grave following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces.

If this does not happen, Hague said Britain would return to the UN Security Council to "get a stronger mandate and for the world to speak together more forcefully about this so that there can be access".

Harrowing footage posted online, showing unconscious children and people foaming around the mouth, has triggered revulsion around the world.

"This is not something that a humane or civilised world can ignore," said Hague.

He said the fact a UN team in Damascus had not yet been able to visit the site suggested that "the Assad regime has something to hide."

A Syrian girl in shock screams in Arabic "I am alive" following an attack in which Syrian opposition claim the regime used chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube by the Arbeen unified press office on August 21, 2013. It has not been independently verified.

Hague said he had discussed the Syria crisis with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday and hoped to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later.

Britain would not rule out any options on Syria, as long as they complied with international law "and could save innocent lives," Hague added.

Republican Senator John McCain warned on Thursday that Barack Obama had given Syria President Bashar al-Assad a "green light'' to commit atrocities by failing to use military force to respond to previous attacks.

"When the president of the United States says that if he uses these weapons that it would be a, quote, 'red line and a game-changer,' (Assad) now sees that as a green light,'' he told CNN.

There are claims thousands of people have been killed in a Syrian army chemical weapon bombardment.

"The word of the president of the United States can no longer be taken seriously, as it isn't throughout the entire region.''

The White House said it was appalled by reports of the attack outside Damascus, and renewed calls for Syria to allow a UN probe. 

Mr McCain has been a frequent critic of Mr Obama's reluctance to commit US military forces to protect civilians in Syria, and bemoaned the horror of the latest attack.

He said that in "couple of days'' US air power could take out Syrian air force runways. 

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows a woman mourning over a body wrapped in shrouds laid out in a line on the ground with other victims which Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces.

"We can supply the right kind of weapons to rebels, establish a no-fly zone by moving Patriot missiles up to the border. This can be done very easily.''

Australian response: Will we go to war over this?

In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he will be speaking to the UN Secretary General about the crisis today.

Rudd to break from campaign over Syria

This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents, shows a Syrian girl receiving treatment at a makeshift hospital in Arbeen town, Damascus after an alleegd toxic gas attack. (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen)

"The UN's position now is investigators are in the country. We are now as an international community calling upon the Syrian Government to give them full access to this most recent horrific incident in order to establish the facts," he said.

Mr Rudd gave no indication of how he would respond if it is a confirmed chemical massacre, saying he plans to take a calm and measured approach to the situation.

Comment: How can we ignore these pictures?

Australian Zaky Mallah, who has travelled to Syria and lived with Free Syrian Army rebels engaged in the bloody civil war against President el Assad, told the Syrian leader had used chemical weapons before.

"Assad is in desperate need to wipe out the rebels close to his compound," Mr Mallah said.

"He has used chemical weapons before and no action was taken.

Syria tensions don't stop Abbott

In March, at least 30 were killed when a rocket allegdly containing chemical weapons hit the village of the village of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria.

"The world cannot just sit back and let him nuke innocent people," Mr Mallah said.

Zaky Mallah was the first Australian charged under anti-terrorist laws, for making a jihad-style video. He was acquitted of the charges.

In one video of the alleged massacre posted on YouTube, children are seen receiving first aid in a field hospital, notably oxygen to help them breathe. Doctors appear to be trying to resuscitate unconscious children.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows people inspecting bodies of children and adults laying on the ground as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack.

Another video showed what activists said was a case of hysteria following a chemical strike in the eastern suburbs. The authenticity of the videos has not immediately been verified.

A young girl held her head in her hands and frantically repeated "I'm alive'', as a man in a white coat tried to comfort her.

A pharmacist who treated victims said: "Their mouths were foaming, their pupils were constricted, and those who were brought in while still alive could not draw their breaths and died subsequently."

Survivors, some twitching uncontrollably, lay on gurneys with oxygen masks covering their faces.

The Wall Street Journal cited an unnamed official as saying there were "strong indications'' that Syrian government forces had carried out a chemical weapons attack.

Damascus has vehemently denied it unleashed chemical weapons on rebel-held area outside Damascus.

If confirmed, the attack would be the largest scale use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian forces on Thursday bombed and shelled a number of rebel zones where the Coalition alleged the attacks took place the previous day.

The head of the UN inspection mission, Aake Sellstroem, was in talks with Damascus "on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident," a UN statement said.

"But we do need to do our due diligence and get all the facts and determine what steps need to be taken."

Human rights groups backed calls for access for the UN inspectors to the sites of the alleged attacks.

Should the allegations be true, "the attacks would amount to war crimes," said Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

The UN inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a strict mandate to investigate three sites for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

A high-ranking Syrian security source described the idea that the army would use chemical weapons while UN weapons inspectors were working inside the country as "political suicide".

The UN Security Council in New York yesterday demanded "clarity" on what had occurred in Syria. 

The 15-nation body expressed "strong concern'' about the allegations and agreed that any chemical weapons use is "a violation of international law''.

The allegations of gassing civilians dwarfed all previous such accounts in the increasingly bloody civil war.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 647 Syrians were killed in the attacks, and it attributed nearly 590 of those deaths to chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, considered the most authoritative group tracking casualties in the conflict, estimated at least 136 dead from an air assault but didn't address whether chemical weapons appeared to be involved.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said hundreds of people were killed or wounded. The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, put the number at 1300, basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.

Syria is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.

Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher who specialises in chemical and biological weapons and disarmament, said that in videos of the aftermath of the attacks, the hue of the victims' faces appeared to show many suffered from asphyxiation.

However, he said the symptoms they exhibited were not consistent with mustard gas or the nerve agents VX or sarin.

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