US could forego UN for Syria strike as Russia, Britain bolster army presence

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US President Barack Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 28 August 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP/ Getty Images - Alex Wong)

Published Thursday, August 29, 2013

Updated at 6:50pm: Russia will send two ships to the east Mediterranean to strengthen its naval presence because of the "well-known situation" in Syria, Interfax news agency said on Thursday, as the United States stopped seeking a United Nations mandate for its planned military strike in the war-torn country.

The agency quoted a source in the armed forces' general staff as saying an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser would be sent in the coming days because the situation "required us to make some adjustments" in the naval force. The Russian Defense Ministry was not immediately available for comment.

Meanwhile, the British Ministry of Defense said Thursday that it had sent six RAF Typhoon jets to its Akrotiri base in Cyprus, an island close to Syria.

"This is purely a prudent and precautionary measure to ensure the protection of UK interests and the defense of our Sovereign Base Areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region," it said, adding the jets would not take part in any direct military action against Syria.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament on Thursday that he was convinced the Syrian government was behind a chemical weapons attack, but admitted there was no "100-percent certainty"

US President Barack Obama said Wednesday he had not yet signed off on a plan to attack Syria, but action appeared likely after Washington stopped seeking a UN mandate.

Obama, who has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a US "red line," said Washington had definitively concluded that President Bashar al-Assad was to blame for last week's attack, an accusation the Syrian government firmly denied.

Asked how close he was to ordering a US strike, expected to start with cruise missile raids, Obama told PBS NewsHour: "I have not made a decision."

But he warned that US action would be designed to send a "shot across the bow" to convince Syria it had "better not do it again."

"We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable," he said.

He admitted that the limited strikes envisioned by the White House would not stop the killing of civilians in Syria but said he had decided that getting involved in a civil war that has already killed 100,000 people would not help the situation.

The Syrian government defiantly shrugged off the growing military threat.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halki accused the West of inventing excuses to intervene and warned that the country would become the "graveyard of the invaders."

"Western countries, starting with the United States, are inventing fake scenarios and fictitious alibis to intervene militarily in Syria," he was quoted as saying by state television.

Assad made clear on Thursday that Syria would defend itself against an outside attack.

"The threats of direct aggression against Syria will only increase our commitment to our deep-rooted principles and the independent will of our people. Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression," Syrian state television quoted Assad as telling a delegation of Yemeni politicians.

The Syrian army is preparing for all eventualities should the West launches missile strikes against the country, a security official said Thursday.

"We are working, like all the armies of the world, on worst-case scenarios. We are taking measures to protect the country from a strike and preparing the conditions for an adequate response," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Political uproar in London, meanwhile, cast doubt on whether Britain will join American military action should the response take place before next week.

Cameron was slowed by a parliamentary revolt and was forced to pledge he would not order military action until the report by UN inspectors has been published.

Opening a debate in the specially recalled House of Commons, Cameron told lawmakers that they had to "make a judgment," upon admitting that their was no irrefutable evidence that Assad was behind the chemical attack.

The opposition Labour Party are set to vote against the motion, with leader Ed Miliband making his case on the Commons floor.

"We have been having increasing doubts about the opaque nature of the government's motion. It does not mention anything about compelling evidence," a senior party source said.

However, Washington had bluntly signaled earlier that a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Britain that could have given a legal basis for an assault was going nowhere, owing to Russian opposition.

"We see no avenue forward, given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful Council action on Syria," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

White House officials would not immediately say whether Washington would wait for Britain before launching any military action.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the international community must wait for the UN inquiry to be completed before taking any further steps, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

In another conversation with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Lavrov said Western military strikes against Assad would destabilize the entire Middle East.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon called on the international powers to head off conflict. He said more time must be given to the inspectors and made a new plea for the Security Council to overcome its divisions on Syria.

"Syria is the biggest challenge of war and peace in the world today. The body entrusted with maintaining international peace and security cannot be missing in action," he said.

"The Council must at last find the unity to act. It must use its authority for peace," Ban said.

A UN team of inspectors investigating an apparent poison gas attack will leave Syria by Saturday morning, Ban said Thursday in Vienna.

"They will continue investigation activities until tomorrow Friday and they will come out of Syria by Saturday morning and will report to me as soon as they come out," Ban told journalists.

The UN chemical weapons experts reached rebel-held territory outside Damascus on Thursday, activists said, and were preparing to start a third day of investigations
Activists said the team had arrived in the eastern suburb of Douma and were going to examine the sites where activists say rockets loaded with chemical weapons struck. The team will also run more tests and interviews with the wounded, they said.

Chinese media warned the West against attacking.

In an editorial headed "No excuse for strikes", the state-run China Daily said the US and its Western allies were "acting as judge, jury and executioner".

Syria's nervous neighbors meanwhile stepped up their preparations for conflict as a strike appeared imminent.

Israel authorized a partial call-up of army reservists, Turkey said its forces were on heightened "vigilance," and New York oil hit the highest level for more than two years.

"The region is like a gunpowder depot," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a condemnation of the West's reported military plans.

An escalation of the Syrian crisis will worsen the situation in the country where the suffering of civilians has reached unprecedented levels, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

In a statement on Thursday, the ICRC said it was appalled by reports of chemical weapons being used on August 21 and said there were acute shortages of vital medical supplies, food and water in a number of areas cut off from aid for months.

"Further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense," said Magne Barth, head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. "In large parts of rural Damascus for example, people are dying because they lack medical supplies and because there are not enough medical personnel to attend to them."

The UN estimates that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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