President Barack Obama mulled options and consolidated international backing for strikes against Syria, as missile-launching U.S. warships deployed in the Mediterranean and were poised to act if ordered.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the President wishes to take," said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday.
The leaders of Britain and France, as well as the Arab League, stepped up their condemnation of Syria for its alleged use of banned chemical weapons. Prime Minister David Cameron recalled parliament from its summer recess for a Thursday session to consider how Britain should respond, saying he was convinced the Syrian regime had gassed its own people last week.
"What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime," Mr. Cameron told reporters Tuesday. "I don't believe we can let that stand." French President François Hollande offered similar comments in Paris, saying France was "ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people."
Amidst the 21st-century sabre-rattling – cruise-missile strikes can be launched from ships hundreds of kilometres away from their target – the White House was still treading cautiously, emphasizing that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not the objective and no commitment of "boots on the ground" was contemplated. Barely one in four Americans back attacking Syria even if it's proven poison gas was used on civilians.
"There must be a response [but] what form that response will take is what the President is assessing now," Mr. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said.
Rallying domestic and international support for waves of missile strikes against the increasingly isolated and beleaguered Syrian regime – now backed only by Iran and Russia – is only half the battle for Mr. Obama as well. Calibrating the attack so it is massive enough to inflict serious damage on Syria's embattled military yet avoid the spectre of killing civilians and require no U.S. casualties, means the most likely scenario is a series of cruise-missile attacks with no U.S. warplanes entering Syria's heavily defended airspace.
With veto-wielding Russia and China unwilling to rubber stamp another U.S.-led attack against a Muslim nation, Mr. Obama will almost certainly be denied the legitimacy of a United Nations Security Council resolution such as the one that authorized an air campaign in support of Libyan rebels in 2011. This makes broad international support even more imperative before any involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Some hesitation was evident at an emergency Arab League meeting Tuesday. Saudi Arabia and Qatar led the harsh condemnation of Damascus over use of chemical weapons. While a statement held the Assad regime "fully responsible for the ugly crime and demands that all the perpetrators" be held to account, there was no explicit support for military action.
The strongest support for the tough U.S. line came from Britain and France, which have been at the forefront of calls for some kind of intervention in Syria for months. The two nations pushed the European Union to drop its ban on supplying arms to Syrian opposition forces earlier this year, although no weapons have flowed yet, and they were among the first to say there was convincing evidence of the use of chemical weapons in incidents earlier this year. Both nations have strong historical ties to the region and led the Libya campaign.
Mr. Cameron has also been a fierce critic of Mr. al-Assad for years and hoped the regime would fall. He has backed off lately, amid signs the Syrian government was gaining the upper hand in the conflict and the lack of domestic political support for arming the rebels. But last week's alleged chemical attack reignited his desire to see the end of the Assad government and he has jumped at the chance to push for a military strike.
There is little public enthusiasm for a new military adventure, though, with British troops still in Afghanistan and the memory of Britain's costly experience in Iraq still vivid. A poll this week in Britain by YouGov found that just 10 per cent of those surveyed backed sending even small weapons to Syrian rebels and 74 per cent opposed sending British troops. Support for military involvement is slightly higher in France but a majority also oppose arming the rebels.
Representatives of the disparate and often-feuding Syrian opposition groups, meeting in Istanbul, said U.S. officials told them missile strikes "could come as early as in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva," Reuters reported. "The Americans are tying any military action to the chemical-weapons issue," one unidentified opposition source said. "The message is clear; they expect the strike to be strong enough to force Assad to go to Geneva and accept a transitional government with full authority."
U.S.-led military attacks have proceeded despite the absence of a UN Security Council mandate – mostly recently in 1999 – when months of air strikes by American, Canadian, British and French warplanes destroyed Serb forces oppressing Kosovo's Albanian minority.