Last Modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 9:29 PM
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Fears of a possible U.S. strike against Syria's regime over an alleged chemical weapons attack rippled across the region Wednesday, as about 6,000 Syrians fled to neighboring Lebanon in a 24-hour period and Israelis scrambled for gas masks in case Damascus retaliates against them.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon pleaded for more time for diplomacy and to allow U.N. investigators to complete their work. The experts, wearing flak jackets and helmets, collected blood and urine samples from victims during a visit to at least one of the areas hit in last week's attack.
Seven days after chemical weapons were purportedly unleashed on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, momentum grew toward Western military action against President Bashar Assad's regime. At the same time, Syria's chief allies, Russia and Iran, warned of dire consequences for the region if any armed intervention is undertaken.
U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Assad's government was behind the Aug. 21 attack that Doctors Without Borders says killed at least 355 people. The White House says it's planning a possible military response while seeking support from international partners.
The U.S. has not presented concrete proof of Syrian regime involvement in the attack, and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations, although the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said evidence suggests some kind of "substance" was used that killed hundreds.
Two senior Obama administration officials said U.S. intelligence agencies are drawing up a report laying out the evidence against Assad's government. The classified version would be sent to key members of Congress and a declassified version would be made public.
One of the officials said the administration is considering more than a single set of military strikes and "the options are not limited just to one day" of assault.
"If there is action taken, it must be clearly defined what the objective is and why" and based on "clear facts," the senior administration official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly.
President Barack Obama is weighing a limited response that focuses on punishing the Syrian government for violating international agreements that bar the use of chemical weapons. Any U.S. military action, officials say, would not be aimed at toppling the Assad regime or vastly altering the course of Syria's civil war, which has already claimed 100,000 dead.
As the U.S., France and Britain push for military action, the U.N. secretary-general urged restraint to give U.N. inspectors time to finish their investigation, which began Monday.
"Let them conclude ... their work for four days and then we will have to analyze scientifically" their findings and send a report to the U.N. Security Council, Ban said. The U.N. said the analysis would be done "as quickly as possible."
Syria's Ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, said he sent Ban a letter demanding that the inspectors extend their investigation to what he described as three chemical weapons attacks against Syrian soldiers in the Damascus suburbs. He said the attacks occurred on Aug. 22, 24, and 25, and that dozens of Syrian soldiers are current being treated for inhaling nerve gases.
Ja'afari also blamed the rebels for any chemical weapons attack, saying "the Syrian government is innocent of these allegations."
Ban pleaded for more time to give diplomacy another chance to end Syria's conflict. Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution in The Hague, Netherlands, he said: "Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking."
But with many seeing Western intervention no longer a question of if but when, there were signs of growing fears across the wider region.
At least 6,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon in a 24-hour period through the main Masnaa crossing, including an estimated 4,000 on Wednesday, according to Lebanese security officials in the country's Bekaa Valley near the border. The normal daily influx is 500 to 1,000 refugees, depending on the level of fighting. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Long lines of packed cars — some with suitcases strapped to roofs — were backed up at the frontier post, witnesses said. A security official said about 2,000 also crossed into Syria, but many of them said they were going in to evacuate relatives.
One woman, Um Ahmad, entered Lebanon with her five children, saying she fearing U.S. strikes on Damascus.
"Isn't it enough, all the violence and fighting that we already have in the country, now America wants to bomb us, too?" the 45-year-old said, declining to give her full name for security concerns.
Her husband said they know no one in Lebanon but came anyway because of their children. "What will we do here, where will we go? I don't know, but hopefully we'll be safe," he added.
Nearly 2 million Syrians have fled the country since the crisis began in March 2011, and millions more are displaced inside Syria.
Effects were also evident in Israel, where large crowds lined up at gas-mask distribution centers. Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution, said demand has tripled in recent days. About 5 million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks, she said.
The Israeli government ordered a "limited" call-up of reserve units to bolster civil defense preparations and to operate air-defense units near the border. Officials said the call-up is anticipated to bring in hundreds of troops.
While Israeli officials believe the chances of a Syrian strike remain slim, there are concerns that Damascus may respond to any U.S.-led military action by attacking the Jewish state, a close American ally.
On Wednesday, the U.N. inspectors visited the eastern Damascus suburbs of Mleeha and Zamalka, activists said. Amateur video showed a convoy of five cars with U.N. markings, followed by armed rebels in pickups.
The video showed the inspectors visiting a clinic and interviewing a man through a translator. Two inspectors were present as a nurse drew blood from a man on an examination table. One of the experts was heard in the video saying he and his team have collected blood, urine and hair samples.
The videos appeared consistent with other reporting by The Associated Press, including Skype interviews with anti-regime activists.
One activist said the team took hair and skin samples of five suspected victims in Zamalka during a 90-minute visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime reprisals.
At the U.N., the five permanent members of the Security Council failed to reach an agreement on a British-proposed resolution that would authorize the use of military force against Syria.
The draft resolution — were it to be put to a vote — would almost certainly be vetoed by Syria ally Russia as well as China, which have blocked past attempts to sanction the Assad regime. The document was being sent back to governments for consultations, according to a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private and he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement that China was deeply concerned about the latest developments in Syria but reiterated China's position that "a political resolution is the only realistic solution."
A French diplomatic official acknowledged that the British resolution has virtually no chance of passing, but is being introduced to show that all diplomatic steps were being exhausted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to disclose details of the deliberations.
French President Francois Hollande convened his top defense advisers about Syria, and was to meet Thursday with the head of Syria's main opposition group.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron held a meeting on Syria and said the military and security chiefs at Britain's National Security Council "unanimously" backed his call for action. Parliament was expected to convene Thursday to discuss the matter and possibly vote on whether Britain would participate.
Jordan, meanwhile, said it will not be used as a launching pad for attacks on Syria and favors a diplomatic solution. A U.S.-led strike would involve cruise missile attacks from the sea, which would not need to cross or make use of Jordanian territory.
The remarks underlined the U.S. ally's efforts to avoid further friction with its larger neighbor for fear that Assad or his Iranian backers could retaliate.
Two of Syria's staunchest backers, Iran and Russia, warned that an attack by U.S. and its allies against Syria would set the region alight.
Such strikes "will lead to the long-term destabilization of the situation in the country and the region," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said attacking Syria would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East.
"Intervention of foreign and extra-regional powers in a country has no result other than sparking fire," Iran's state TV quoted Khamenei as saying. "Waging a war is like a spark in a gunpowder store ... its dimensions and consequences can't be predicted."
An order for a US strike would come from Obama, delivered to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The operation probably would fall under the purview of U.S. Central Command, headed by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. The more immediate commander probably would be Adm. Bruce Clingan, who heads U.S. naval forces in Europe. A coalition likely joined by allies such as Britain and France would likely set up a joint task force to coordinate targeting and missions.
Four U.S. Navy destroyers — the USS Gravely, USS Mahan, USS Barry and USS Ramage — are in the eastern Mediterranean Sea waiting for the order to launch.
They are armed with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of about 1,000 nautical miles, and are used for deep, precise targeting. Each one is about 20 feet long and less than two feet in diameter, and carries a 1,000 pound warhead.
The missiles fly at low altitudes and their range allows the ships to sit far off the coast, out of range of any potential response by the Syrian government. Some ships have cameras that can provide battle damage assessments.
The Navy also now has two aircraft carriers in the region, loaded with fighter jets. The USS Truman arrived in the Arabian Sea to take the place of the USS Nimitz, which was supposed to head home. But the Navy ordered the Nimitz, which is in the Indian Ocean, to stay for now.
U.S. officials described the decision as prudent planning, and said it doesn't suggest the carrier would play a role in any possible strikes in Syria.
Britain's Royal Navy has deployed at least one Trafalgar-class attack submarine to the Mediterranean, though it declines to specify where. Each of the subs typically carries around a dozen Tomahawk missiles. That supply, if exhausted, could be quickly restocked by a Royal Navy nine-ship task force that deployed this month to the eastern Mediterranean.
The British Royal Air Force base Akrotiri, 175 miles west of the Syrian coast, could be used by cruise missile-capable U.S., British and French aircraft.
Obama has ruled out putting troops on the ground in Syria, and because of Assad's extensive air defense systems, officials believe it is too risky at least initially to deploy fighter aircraft or even low-flying drones that could be shot down.
While less likely, the U.S. could deploy fighter jets or bombers as the operation continues, particularly if the Assad regime begins to take retaliatory actions and manned aircraft are needed in order to strike specific, critical targets.
Obama has rejected trying to impose a "no-fly" zone over the country. Military leaders have said that creating one would be risky and expensive.
U.S. officials say any operation must have clear goals that can guide decisions on what the military must strike.
Dempsey has told Congress that lethal force would be used "to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons and defend itself."
At a minimum, Western forces are expected to strike targets that symbolize Assad's military and political might: military and national police headquarters, including the Defense Ministry; the Syrian military's general staff; and the four-brigade Republican Guard that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Assad's seat of power. Assad's ruling Baath Party headquarters could be targeted, too.
U.S. officials also are considering attacking military command centers and vital forces, communications hubs and weapons caches, including ballistic missile batteries.
Air defense systems, including Syrian aircraft, interception missiles, radar and other equipment, also could be targets. The majority of those systems — as many as 500 defense positions and 400 operational aircraft — have been positioned along Lebanon's border, in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, along the Syrian Mediterranean coast and in and around Damascus.
Helicopter and fixed wing aircraft air bases across the country, including the Mezzeh air base in Damascus, and Nairab, a major military air base in Aleppo, could be targets.
Because any strike would be considered payback for Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, Western forces could zero in on the headquarters of the Syrian Army's 4th Division, 155th Brigade. That unit is believed to be responsible for the Aug. 21 attack that U.S. officials say involved chemical weapons. The brigade is headed by Maher Assad, Bashar Assad's younger brother.
The brigade has a missile base across a large terrain in a mountain range west of Damascus, including underground bunkers and tunnels. It is believed to be surrounded by army bases as well as weapons and ammunition storage sites.
Systems for moving Assad's chemical weapons stockpile could be top targets as well. But the stockpile itself probably would not be hit because of risk of accidental release of the deadly nerve agents that include mustard gas, tabun, sarin and VX.
It's doubtful the U.S. would directly target Assad. U.S. policy prohibits assassinating foreign leaders unless they have attacked America first.
It's also unclear if Assad's military intelligence headquarters, a symbolic target, might be attacked; it's believed to hold hundreds of prisoners.
The most common answer to this question in recent days has been "soon." But a number of factors that could affect the timing.
The British Parliament was expected to convene Thursday to discuss the matter and possibly vote on whether Britain would participate. There's has been a so-far unsuccessful effort to seek U.N. Security Council approval for a strike, but there's also significant pressure on the administration to act quickly and decisively.
Any military operation probably unfold at night or in the predawn hours, with an initial assault possibly lasting several hours and involving missile strikes from several warships. What could follow is a period in which the U.S. might use satellites and other intelligence capabilities to assess the damage.
Under that scenario, such an assessment could be followed by an additional round or two of missile strikes. Most officials believe any operation would last no more than a few days.
Other U.S. military assets in the region, including an Air Force air wing of F-16 fighter jets located in Aviano, Italy, are available, but might not be used, at least right away.
The British fleet in the eastern Mediterranean is led by the HMS Bulwark, an assault vessel designed to deliver around 400 Royal Marine Commandos by landing craft or helicopters, all stored on board. Specialist communications and engineering units of the Marine Commando also are aboard.
The fleet's other principal ship is HMS Illustrious, a helicopter transport that carries anti-sub and attack helicopters. There also are two frigates carrying anti-ship, anti-air and anti-sub weapons systems, and five supply ships.
The French defense ministry says it has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.
Any air contribution to a potential attack on Syria, however, probably would come directly from France and mean pit stops at British RAF base Akrotiri, or rely on airborne tankers.