US ready to launch Syria strike, says Chuck Hagel

In a BBC interview, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says the military is "ready to go" in responding to Syria

American forces are "ready" to launch strikes on Syria if President Barack Obama chooses to order an attack, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel says.

"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Mr Hagel told the BBC.

The White House said the US would release intelligence on last week's suspected attack in the next few days.

The UK Parliament is to be recalled on Thursday to discuss possible responses.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the world could "not stand idly by" after seeing "appalling scenes of death and suffering" caused by suspected chemical weapons attacks.

At the scene

A good number of Syrians, in particular those supporting the regime, believe the visit of the UN chemical weapons investigation team is nothing but a move to justify a military attack on Syria. The opposition, however, thinks that these visits will lead to some evidence being unearthed, proving that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the Syrian regime.

Above all, fear and discomfort are palpable among those living in the capital. People are haunted by the possibility of a Western military strike on Syria, discussion of which is dominating the headlines of satellite channels.

"I don't want Syria to become another Iraq... Enough bloodshed," cried one Syrian woman.

"We, and thousands like us across Syria, will face any country that tries to attack us," threatened a young man, pointing at his weapon, which he uses to protect his neighbourhood. "These are Syria's problems and it is up to us, Syrians, to solve them."

The crisis follows last Wednesday's suspected chemical attack near the Syrian capital, Damascus, which reportedly killed more than 300 people.

US Vice President Joe Biden said there was "no doubt who was responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: The Syrian regime".

In a speech to a veterans' group in Houston, Mr Biden said that "those who use chemical weapons against defenceless men, women, and children... must be held accountable".

French President Francois Hollande said France was "ready to punish" whoever was behind the attack, and had decided to increase military support for Syria's main opposition.

BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says the US, UK and France will now have the larger task of building as wide a coalition as possible to support limited military action.

Meanwhile the Arab League said it held Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the attacks and called for UN action.

Syrian opposition sources have said they have been told to expect a Western intervention in the conflict imminently.

"There is no precise timing... but one can speak of an imminent international intervention against the regime. It's a question of days and not weeks," AFP news agency quoted Syrian National Coalition official Ahmad Ramadan as saying.

"There have been meetings between the Coalition, the [rebel] Free Syrian Army and allied countries during which possible targets have been discussed."

Start Quote

Mr Kerry is of course right that most people will think as he does, simply from watching the TV pictures. Some, however, will demand much stronger proof, particularly in the wake of the faulty intelligence that was used as a reason to go to war against Iraq”

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Russia and China, allies of the Syrian government, have stepped up their warnings against military intervention, with Moscow saying any such action would have "catastrophic consequences" for the region.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he rejects "utterly and completely" claims that Syrian forces used chemical weapons, and his government has blamed rebel fighters.

On Monday, United Nations weapons inspectors were fired on while investigating one of the five alleged chemical weapons attack sites around Damascus.

'We are prepared'

Mr Hagel said the US Department of Defense had provided President Obama with "all options for all contingencies".

A UN vehicle leaves the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus Syria, Tuesday, 27 August, 2013. The head of the UN chemical inspectors team, Ake Sellstrom, and the UN's disarmament chief, Angela Kane, left their hotel in Damascus on Tuesday. The head of the UN chemical inspectors team, Ake Sellstrom, and the UN's disarmament chief, Angela Kane, left their hotel in Damascus on Tuesday.
Residents gather around a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of UN chemical weapons experts at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya on 26 August 2013 UN chemical weapons inspectors spent nearly three hours in the suburb of Muadhamiya in western Damascus on Monday.
Image taken from amateur video footage, a UN inspector, right, speaks to a man about the alleged chemical weapon attack at a makeshift hospital in Muadhamiya, Damascus, on 26 August 2013 The inspectors visited two hospitals and interviewed survivors, eyewitnesses and doctors over last week's suspected chemical attack near the Syrian capital.
UN weapons inspectors meet residents at site of one of alleged attacks - 26 August The inspectors were seen speaking to residents of Muadhamiya.

"He has seen them, we are prepared," he told the BBC's Jon Sopel, adding: "We are ready to go."

Jay Carney says the US is weighing an "appropriate response" to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria

Mr Hagel said that intelligence currently being gathered by the UN inspectors would confirm that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack last week.

"I think it's pretty clear that chemical weapons were used against people in Syria," he said.

Our correspondent says Mr Hagel left little doubt that he believed the Assad government was responsible, and was ready to execute the orders of his commander-in-chief.

Models for possible intervention

  • Iraq 1991: US-led global military coalition, anchored in international law; explicit mandate from UN Security Council to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait
  • Balkans 1990s: US arms supplied to anti-Serb resistance in Croatia and Bosnia in defiance of UN-mandated embargo; later US-led air campaign against Serb paramilitaries. In 1999, US jets provided bulk of 38,000 Nato sorties against Serbia to prevent massacres in Kosovo - legally controversial with UN Security Council resolutions linked to "enforcement measures"
  • Somalia 1992-93: UN Security Council authorised creation of international force with aim of facilitating humanitarian supplies as Somali state failed. Gradual US military involvement without clear objective culminated in Black Hawk Down disaster in 1993. US troops pulled out
  • Libya 2011: France and UK sought UN Security Council authorisation for humanitarian operation in Benghazi in 2011. Russia and China abstained but did not veto resolution. Air offensive continued until fall of Gaddafi

White House spokesman Jay Carney later said that a separate report on chemical weapons use being compiled by the US intelligence community would be published this week.

Mr Carney said that Mr Obama had a variety of options and was not limited to the use of force, adding that it was not Washington's intention to remove Mr Assad.

"The options we are considering are not about regime change," he said.

Meanwhile, warnings have been issued on sites linked to Islamist militants fighting for the rebels in Syria, saying that their leaders and training camps might also be targeted by a possible US-led attack, says BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher.

Several online sites linked to the Nusra Front and similar groups have advised militants not to hold meetings or gather in large numbers, and to change routines and locations, he says.

Western powers have made clear their distrust and dislike of groups like the Nusra Front, which have spearheaded rebel victories, although there has been no indication from the US or anyone else that jihadists would be targeted, he adds.

The UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began more than two years ago. The conflict has produced more than 1.7 million registered refugees.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on August 27, 2013, allegedly shows people gathering near a Russian aircraft loaded with humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies after its arrival at Latakia airport in Syria. Syrian and Russian media said a cargo plane arrived in Latakia to evacuate Russian citizens

Earlier on Tuesday, a Russian transport plane landed in the Syrian city of Latakia with a cargo of humanitarian aid.

The aircraft later left with dozens of Russian citizens on board, an official spokeswoman for the Russian Emergencies Ministry, Irina Rossius, told Russian news agencies.

The flight was intended to evacuate Russians who wanted to leave Syria, she added.

Map: Forces which could be used in strikes against Syria
Country Forces available for Syria strike

US

Four destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan - in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles Cruise missiles could also be launched from submarines in the region

Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey could be used to carry out strikes

Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman

UK

Cruise missiles could be launched from a British Trafalgar class submarine

The Royal Navy's response force task group - which includes helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious and frigates HMS Montrose and HMS Westminster - is in the region on a previously-scheduled deployment

Airbase in Cyprus could also be used

France

Aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon.

Raffale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE

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