A rebel fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade at government forces during clashes near Aleppo, Syria. (AFP)
Amman/Beirut, Aug. 27 (Reuters): Western powers could attack Syria within days, envoys from the US and its allies have told rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, sources who attended the meeting told Reuters today.
US forces in the region are “ready to go”, defence secretary Chuck Hagel said, as Washington and its European and West Asian partners honed plans to punish Assad for a major poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.
Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul yesterday between Syrian Opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington and other governments told Reuters that the rebels were told to expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace.
“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.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 states in the Friends of Syria group, including Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel.
UN chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples yesterday, 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. British Prime Minister David Cameron called parliament back from its summer recess for a session on Syria on Thursday.
He and Obama, as well as French President Francois 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”.
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.
Russia, a major arms supplier to Assad, has said rebels may have released the gas and warned against attacking Syria. Deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov criticised Washington for cancelling bilateral talks on Syria that were set for tomorrow.
The Syrian conflict has split West Asia along sectarian lines. Shia Iran has supported Assad and his Alawite minority against mainly Sunni rebels, some of them Islamists, who have backing from Gulf Arab states.
Syrian foreign minister Moualem, who insisted the government was trying to help the UN inspection team, told a news conference in Damascus that Syria would hit back if attacked.
“We have means of defending ourselves, and we will surprise them with these if necessary,” he said. “We will defend ourselves. We will not hesitate to use any means available.”