DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN)-
Warships armed with cruise missiles plow the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And U.S. officials are all but telling United Nations inspectors in Syria to get out of the way.
It remains unclear how soon, and exactly how, the United States and other nations may take action against Syria following a suspected chemical weapons attack. But on Wednesday, the drumbeat toward possible military strikes got louder.
NATO issued a warning.
“The Syrian regime maintains custody of stockpiles of chemical weapons. Information available from a wide variety of sources points to the Syrian regime as responsible for the use of chemical weapons in these attacks. This is a clear breach of long-standing international norms and practice.
“Any use of such weapons is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered. Those responsible must be held accountable. We consider the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security,” NATO said in a statement after a meeting Wednesday in Brussels.
U.S. forces are ready, if an order to strike comes down, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC Tuesday.
A senior Defense Department official told CNN that any strike could be completed “within several days.”
Cabinet-level officials held a National Security Council meeting at the White House Tuesday night. British security officials in London were meeting Wednesday to hash out options.
And Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday, “Syria is now undoubtedly the most serious crisis facing the international community.”
“It does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people,” he said of the suspected chemical attack last week. The death toll could be in the hundreds, or possibly more than a thousand, he said.
Rebel officials have estimated 1,300 dead from the attack, which they blame on the Syrian regime.
“This is of course unacceptable. This is outrageous,” Brahimi said in Geneva. “This confirms how dangerous the situation in Syria is and how important for the Syrians and the international community to really develop the political will to address this issue seriously and look for solutions for it.”
Syria denies using chemical weapons, and blames rebels. Some Syrians have told CNN they doubt their government used chemical weapons.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi on Wednesday said Western nations, headed by the United States, are fabricating scenarios to justify military intervention, according to state TV.
Israeli military intelligence provided intercepts among Syrian military commanders that discussed the movement of chemical weapons to the area of the attack before it happened, a diplomatic source told CNN Wednesday.
A U.N. team has been inspecting the attack site, particularly the town of Zamalka, which was believed to have suffered the most casualties.
“We clearly value the U.N.’s work — we’ve said that from the beginning — when it comes to investigating chemical weapons in Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. “But we’ve reached a point now where we believe too much time has passed for the investigation to be credible and that it’s clear the security situation isn’t safe for the team in Syria.”
But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seemed to ask for a reprieve Wednesday for the sake of the inspectors. “The team needs time to do its job,” he said from The Hague, where he visited the International Criminal Court.
He said the team has already collected valuable evidence.
A U.S. independent intelligence report about the chemical weapons attack will come out later this week, according to a Washington official who was not authorized to speak to the media.
For almost two years, President Barack Obama has avoided direct military involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war as the death toll skyrocketed to more than 100,000, according to U.N. estimates.
But Obama had warned that a chemical attack would cross a “red line.”
The White House has ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or implementing a no-fly zone to blunt al-Assad’s aerial superiority over rebels.
Obama continues to review options, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, adding that “nothing has been decided.”
Those options include peaceful diplomacy, which critics have called a “do nothing” approach.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, a former U.S. Army Ranger and current member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes that the most realistic option would be cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships at sea.
“We can have precision weapons that could be fired and keep our aircraft out of Syrian airspace and away from their anti-aircraft systems,” he said.
“The most effective targets would have command-and-control, because you could send a signal to the Syrian regime that if they don’t agree to international standards, if they don’t make it clear and make it obvious that they’re not going to use these weapons, and that we can inflict additional damage on their command-and-control,” he added.
Efforts to build international consensus
Some efforts are under way to build support in the U.N. Security Council — but there’s little hope of any resolution supporting military action getting the council’s approval.
Britain drafted a resolution “condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad and authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians,” Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted Wednesday. The resolution will be put forward at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, he said.
But Russia, a close ally of Syria, would likely use its veto power to block a resolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insists there is no proof yet Syria’s government is behind the chemical weapons attack.
The ministry accused Washington of trying to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention.”
“The West handles the Islamic world the way a monkey handles a grenade,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted.
China, which also has a permanent seat on the council, would also probably object to military measures.
Still, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Wednesday urged all members of the Security Council, especially Russia, to back it.
“It’s time that the United Nations Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria, which for the past two and a half years it’s failed to do,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
Even if China and Russia veto a resolution, “we and other nations still have a responsibility” in light of the first use of chemical weapons in the 21st century, Hague said.
Brahimi said international law requires that that the Security Council approve military action.
“I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger happy,” he said. “What they will decide I don’t know.”
Outside of the United Nations, a military coalition is taking shape among Western powers.
Along with Britain, France has also signaled it would join Western military intervention against forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
French President Francois Hollande said France is “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people.”
The French parliament will hold a session next week to debate the situation in Syria.
Australia said Wednesday it will not send troops to Syria.
Syria: ‘We have the materials to defend ourselves’
If foreign powers strike, Syria will fight back, its foreign minister said.
“Syria is not easy to swallow,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday. “We have the materials to defend ourselves. We will surprise others.”
And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Wednesday of “graver conditions” should strikes be carried out.
“If any country attacks another when it wants, that is like the Middle Ages,” he said.
Some Americans are pushing back against talk of intervention.
Opinion polls show military intervention in the conflict is unpopular among Americans.
And a group of 31 Republican and six Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to the president urging him “to consult and receive authorization” before signing off on any military action.
Some fear a U.S. strike could stoke the conflict, not calm it. Others don’t want the administration to go it alone. Reed of Rhode Island said NATO allies must be involved, as well as members of the Arab League.
Former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia is dead set against it. “Both sides are bad,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN. “There is no victory to be had there.”
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