US 'ready' for possible Syria strike, defence chief says

Photo: AFP

US forces are "ready" for a possible strike on Syrian targets, US defence chief Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday, as Britain said it was reviewing military plans for a "proportional response" to a suspected Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus.


US military forces in the region are "ready to go" if President Barack Obama gives the order to strike Syrian targets, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday, as Britain said it was also reviewing contingency plans for a Syrian intervention.

"We are prepared. We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel said, adding: "We are ready to go."

The US Navy now has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean equipped with long-range missiles that can strike targets inside Syria in addition to two aircraft carriers and submarines in the region.

Hagel, who spoke to his British and French counterparts by phone earlier in the day, said it was most likely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime that was behind a chemical attack last week on the outskirts of Damascus.

"I think it's pretty clear that chemical weapons were used against people in Syria," Hagel said. "I think the intelligence will conclude that it wasn't the rebels who used it, and there'll probably be pretty good intelligence to show is that the Syria government was responsible."

But Hagel said any US military action would only follow after the findings of a UN chemical team now investigating the alleged attack proved conclusive.

"We'll wait and determine what the facts and the intelligence bear out," he said.

Britain said Tuesday that its armed forces were also drawing up contingency plans for a "proportionate response" to the suspected Syrian chemical attack and has made it clear that the West could take action even without UN Security Council backing.

French President François Hollande told a gathering of French ambassadors that his country is prepared to "punish" those responsible for the suspected poison gas attack, saying: "France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents." Hollande also announced plans to boost military aid to Syrian rebels.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has called the alleged attack a "crime against humanity" that "cannot go unpunished".

Syria will ‘surprise’ the West

Syria on Tuesday vowed to defend itself against any Western intervention, with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem telling a news conference that the strength of Syria’s military capabilities would come as a “surprise”.

"We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal," Muallem said. "The second choice is the best: We will defend ourselves."

"Syria is not an easy case," he said. "We have defences which will surprise others."

Muallem went on to warn that any military action against his country would only serve the interests of Israel and the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked group fighting against Assad alongside Syria's anti-regime rebels.

Muallem has categorically denied claims that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the attack, saying he "utterly and completely" rejects the accusations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that any use of force would have "catastrophic consequences" for the region and would violate international law unless it was approved by the United Nations.

Russia maintains that the West has no concrete proof that Damascus was behind last week’s chemical attack.

UN postpones chemical probe

UN chemical weapons experts on Tuesday postponed efforts to collect more evidence from the site of the suspected August 21 attacks near Damascus, in which at least 355 people were reportedly killed.

The team had been due to visit the sites for a second day Tuesday, but Muallem said the trip had been put off because anti-regime rebels had failed to guarantee their security.

The UN convoy came under unidentified sniper fire on Monday as it tried to approach the Damascus suburb where the attack took place, but did manage to visit and take samples from victims receiving treatment in two nearby hospitals.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)


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