Western powers could attack Syria within days, envoys from the United States and its allies told rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, sources who attended the meeting told Reuters on Tuesday.
US forces in the region are “ready to go”, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, as Washington and its European and Middle Eastern 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 on Monday 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.
United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off a second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. But 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 rebels if Assad is overthrown.
In an indication of support from Arab states that may help Western powers argue the case for war against UN vetoes from Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding Assad’s government fully responsible for the chemical attack.
US FORCES READY
Asked if US forces were ready to strike Syria just “like that”, Hagel told the BBC: “We are ready to go, like that.”
“We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take.”
Top generals from the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war.
Hagel said the United States would have intelligence to present “very shortly” about last week’s mass poisoning. But he noted after calls with his British and French counterparts that there was little doubt among U.S. allies that “the most base … international humanitarian standard was violated”.
Turkey, Syria’s neighbour and part of the US-led Nato military pact, called it a “crime against humanity” that demanded international reaction.
The Syrian government, which denies using gas or obstructing the UN inspectors, said it would press on with its offensive against rebels around the capital.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said US strikes would help al Qaeda allies but called Western leaders “delusional” if they hoped to help the rebels reach a balance of power in Syria.
In Britain, whose forces have supported the US military in a succession of wars, Cameron called for an appropriate level of retribution for using chemical weapons.
“Our forces are making contingency plans,” a spokesman told reporters. London would make a “proportionate response”.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people … What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world.
“The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.
“And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
How an intervention, likely to be limited to air strikes, would affect the course of Syria’s two and half year old civil war is far from clear. The conflict is largely at a stalemate.
Turmoil in Egypt, whose 2011 uprising inspired Syrians to rebel, has underlined the unpredictability of revolutions. And the presence of militants, including allies of al Qaeda in the Syrian rebel ranks, has given Western leaders pause. They have held back so far from helping Assad’s opponents to victory.