President Barack Obama said the United States was weighing “limited, narrow” action against Syria, as the US and France lead efforts for a military strike in the war-torn country despite polls showing public disapproval.
Obama emphasized he had made no “final decision” on unleashing military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but gave his clearest indication yet that an attack was imminent.
His remarks came after the United States released an intelligence report that claimed the government had launched a chemical onslaught in the suburbs of Damascus last week, killing 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.
The sources of the intelligence report remained unknown however, as a United Nation team of chemical weapons experts left Syria on Saturday after several days of inspections.
“This kind of attack is a challenge to the world,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” he said, calling the attack a threat to US national security interests.
“The world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” the president said, slamming the failure of the UN Security Council to agree on action.
Obama said he was looking at a “wide range of options” but had ruled out “boots on the ground” or a “long-term campaign.”
“We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act,” he added.
UN experts meanwhile left Syria and crossed by land into Lebanon in a convoy early Saturday after completing their investigation into the attacks around Damascus and said they would “expedite” a report on whether chemical weapons had been used there.
The team is due to report back immediately to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who has appealed to the West to allow time for their findings to be assessed.
France gave its backing to the US plans, saying a “strong message” should be sent to Assad, but British lawmakers have voted against any involvement in military action and other close US allies said they would not sign up.
Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, has questioned US intelligence about the August 21 gas attacks and has warned against any military strikes without UN backing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday firmly rejected claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, calling it “nonsense” and demanding proof.
“Syrian government troops are on the offensive and have surrounded the opposition in several regions. In these conditions, to give a trump card to those who are calling for a military intervention is utter nonsense,” Putin told reporters in Vladivostok in response to a question on alleged chemical weapons use by Assad.
“Regarding the position of our American colleagues, who affirm that government troops used… chemical weapons, and say that they have proof, well, let them show it to the United Nations inspectors and the Security Council,” he added. “If they don’t show it, that means there is none.”
The United States, faced with an impasse at the Security Council and the British parliament’s shock vote Thursday, has been forced to look elsewhere for international partners.
While Germany and Canada ruled out joining any military strikes, French President Francois Hollande – whose country was a strident opponent of the US-led war on Iraq – said the British decision would not affect his government’s stance.
Hollande said he and Obama “agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it should hold the Syrian regime accountable for it and send a strong message.”
However, Most French people do not want France to take part in military action on Syria and most do not trust Hollande to do so, a poll showed on Saturday.
The BVA poll released by Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France, showed 64 percent of respondents opposed military action, 58 percent did not trust Hollande to conduct it, and 35 percent feared it could “set the entire region (Middle East) ablaze.”
Two other opinion polls published this week, and carried out after the gas attack, indicated low support among French voters for military intervention in Syria.
Turkey, Syria’s neighbor, went further still, demanding not just surgical strikes to send a message about chemical weapons but a sustained campaign to topple the Syrian government.
“A limited operation cannot be satisfactory for us,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying by the NTV news channel.
But Russia and Iran, and even some US allies, have warned against any intervention, saying it risks sparking a wider conflict.
Leftist Latin American leaders from the UNASUR bloc expressed their “extreme” concern about the situation in Syria and condemned any possible US intervention.
Divisions over Syria have further chilled the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow ahead of the G20 summit next week in Saint Petersburg, where pointedly there will be no face-to-face talks between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Syria has denied using chemical weapons, and the foreign ministry said that the US intelligence report was “nothing but tired legends that the terrorists have been circulating for more than a week, with their share of lies and entirely fabricated stories.”
The military buildup was meanwhile continuing, with US warships armed with scores of cruise missiles converging on the eastern Mediterranean.
In Damascus, the mood was heavy with fear and security forces were making preparations for possible air strikes, pulling soldiers back from potential targets.
More than 100,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and two million have become refugees, half of them children, according to the United Nations.
Some commentators have questioned the wisdom of Obama dragging the United States into another conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – particularly as al-Qaeda militants are among the rebels fighting in Syria.
Some members of the US Congress have voiced support for limited missile strikes, while urging transparency from the administration.
But a new opinion poll found that half of all Americans oppose any US intervention.
Syria expects a military attack “at any moment,” a security official told AFP Saturday.
“We are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment,” said the Syrian security official, who wished to remain anonymous.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)