London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The US appeared to be moving closer to striking Syria on Saturday after UN weapons inspectors investigating an alleged chemical attack by the Assad government left the country earlier than planned.
The 13 UN inspectors led by Åke Sellström left Syria at 4 am local time on Saturday, approximately three hours ahead of schedule. Their departure increases the likelihood of a possible US strike, particularly after President Barack Obama gave his clearest indication yet that military intervention was imminent.
Speaking on Friday, the US president acknowledged that his administration was looking at a “limited, narrow act,” but added that the US is still in the “planning processes.”
He said: “When over a thousand people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used, even in war, and there is no action, then we are sending a signal that this international norm does not mean much, and that is a danger to our national security.”
“A lot of people think that something should be done, but nobody wants to do it,” he added, pledging to hold the Assad regime to account.
Syrian officials have said that Damascus is preparing for an imminent attack following the exit of the UN inspectors. A Syrian official speaking to AFP on the condition of anonymity said: “We are expecting an attack at any moment. . . . We are ready to retaliate at any moment.”
The Syrian rebels have announced that they are prepared to “take advantage” of any US military strikes targeting the Assad regime.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) Supreme Military Council spokesman, Qassim Saadeddine, told Reuters: “The hope is to take advantage when some areas are weakened by any strikes. We ordered some groups to prepare in each province, to ready their fighters for when the strike happens.”
“They were sent a military plan that includes preparations to attack some of the targets we expect to be hit in foreign strikes, and some others that we hope to attack at the same time,” he added.
Obama’s statement on Friday came following an impassioned speech by US secretary of state John Kerry in which he said the US has intelligence that the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch the chemical weapons attack.
Kerry claimed that Syrian regime personnel were at the site of the attack for three days beforehand, warning that “history would judge us” if the world fails to intervene in Syria.
“If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar Al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve,” he said.
The US also released a document supporting their claim that the Assad regime was responsible for the August 21 attack. The four-page unclassified report revealed that intercepted communications between Syrian officials had “confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime.”
However, Russian president Vladimir Putin subsequently dismissed the US claims, saying it would be “utter nonsense” for government troops to use chemical weapons in a war it is winning. He called on Washington to provide any evidence of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons to the UN Security Council.
Speaking during a press conference in Vladivostok, Putin said: “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.”
Damascus also dismissed the US claim, saying it was “full of lies” and laying the blame for the August 21 chemical attack in Ghouta on the Syrian rebels
Putin called on the US to reveal the evidence it purports to possess against the Assad regime, adding, “If there is evidence, it should be shown. If it is not shown, then there isn’t any.”