Syrians shop at the al-Shaalan market in Damascus. (Reuters)
Beirut, Aug. 28 (Reuters): People in Damascus stocked up on supplies today and some left homes close to potential targets as US officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days.
UN chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what — and who — caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.
But as UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and West Asian allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar al-Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.
Syria’s government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the US, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”.
Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al Qaida enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred western powers from arming Assad’s foes — but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas.
Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the UN Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorise military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians — a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China.
The US and its allies say a UN veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a manoeuvre to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, Nato and Turkey also condemned Assad.
Washington has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order. A senior US official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We’re talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the administration official said on Wednesday.
Western armies are expected to wait until the UN experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and secretary-general Ban said they need four days work.
A second US official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future. Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defences and any possible reprisals by its allies.
The prospect of a G-20 summit in St Petersburg next Thursday may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes. Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states. “The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on Wednesday.