SYRIA’S foreign minister said yesterday that his country would defend itself using “all means available” in the event of a military strike.
Speaking at a press conference in Damascus, Walid al-Moallem denied that his government was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack near the capital and he challenged Washington to present proof to support the accusations.
His comments came as global condemnation of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime grew following last week’s purported attack with poison gas, which activists say killed hundreds of people.
The United Nations, meanwhile, said its team of chemical weapons experts in Syria had delayed a second trip to investigate the alleged attack near
Damascus by a day for security reasons.
Mr Moallem likened American allegations that Mr Assad’s regime was behind the attack to false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 US-led invasion of that country.
“They have a history of lies – Iraq,” he said.
Mr Moallem spoke a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry said there was “undeniable” evidence of a large-scale chemical attack probably launched by
Assad’s regime. Mr Moallem also rejected accusations that Syria was destroying evidence of the alleged attack.
He said he was personally unconvinced that there would be international military action, but that if there was, then Syria could weather the attack.
“The strike will come and go. We get mortars every day and we have learned to live with them,” he said.
He also blamed the postponement of the UN team’s planned visit to the eastern Ghouta suburb on disputes between rebel gunmen who could not agree
on safety guarantees for the investigators.
Mr Kerry’s comments and tough language on Monday laid out the clearest argument yet for US military action in Syria which, if president Barack Obama decides to order it, would most likely involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on military targets.
Yesterday, American defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the US navy had four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean
positioned within range of targets inside Syria. US warplanes were also in the region, he said. Support for some sort of international military response is likely to grow if it is confirmed that Assad’s regime was responsible for the attack on 21 August that killed 355 people, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.
After the emergency meeting held yesterday, the Arab League said it would convene a meeting at ministerial level next week to follow up on the situation in Syria.
In a statement it said: “The council holds the Syrian regime totally responsible for this heinous crime and calls for all involved in the despicable crime to be given a fair international trial like other war criminals.”
Mr Obama has yet to say how he will respond, but appeared to be moving ahead even as the UN team on the ground in Syria collected evidence about the attack.
The UN confirmed the team’s one-day delay, saying that the decision was made yesterday to improve preparedness and safety, after unidentified snipers opened fire on the inspectors’ convoy on Monday.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said he had instructed UN disarmament chief Angela Kane in Damascus “to register a strong complaint” about the convoy attack with both the Syrian government and opposition representatives.
In Geneva, UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told reporters that the inspection team might need longer than the planned 14 days to complete its work and that its priority now was to determine what chemical weapons might have been used in the 21 August attack. “This is the first priority,” she said.
Tim Ripley: The Syrians will fight hard - this will not be easy for the West
With president Obama and David Cameron actively preparing domestic and international opinion to support or at least acquiesce in western strikes, US, British and allied military commanders are busy preparing options and scenarios for their political masters.
The meeting in Jordan of military chiefs yesterday was apparently the catalyst for military planners from western and Arab countries to build a series of attack plans.
It is not clear yet if president Obama – as the dominant military player in all this – has decided on a one-off punishment strike or a more broad and decisive intervention to change the course of the civil war in favour of the anti-Assad rebels. General Martin Dempsey and other top US commanders are reported to be in favour of a decisive intervention to bring the situation to a head rather than follow an incremental approach that could lead to a Vietnam-style quagmire.
To pull off any decisive intervention will require a huge effort involving Tomahawk cruise missiles and air launched stand-off weapons to neutralise Syria’s 130 anti-aircraft missile batteries and 4,000 anti-aircraft guns, as well as destroy Syria’s air force on the ground.
Once air supremacy has been achieved, then air power and missile strikes can be directed at Syria’s army brigades and Scud missile batteries to lift the pressure on rebel fighters. A top target will be Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, but these cannot really be effectively neutralised from the air, requiring decommissioning experts, escorted by special forces, to be inserted on the ground to complete their destruction in a way that does not release dangerous chemical agents close to civilians.
Unlike in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the Syrians are well-armed, determined and skilful opponents. They can be expected to fight back hard.
Perhaps, most importantly, unlike the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi, the Syrians have major foreign allies who can be expected to come to their aid, either directly in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East..
The Syrians can be expected to employ some unconventional strategies to try to widen the war. British and US bases in Turkey, Jordan and on Cyprus are within easy reach of Syrian Scud missile batteries and Su-24 strike jets.
If the Syrians choose to strike back with these weapons it would force western forces to fight on the defensive to protect their air bases and the civilian populations of key allies.
Syrian anti-ship batteries would also seriously endanger western naval forces in Mediterranean.
The potential for the Iranians and the Hizbullah militia in Lebanon to join forces with the Syrians must be very high.
Western intervention in Syria will not be easy or short. It is by no means certain that western forces will prevail without a huge and sustained commitment of air, sea and land power.
• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst and commentator.
Michael Fry: ‘What we’ve seen in Basra we’ll see in Homs’
Contemplate the consequence of inaction and shudder, says Tony Blair, but we would do well to contemplate the consequence of action too. We will find no less reason to shudder.
If we do send western troops into Syria, we can doubtless defeat president Assad’s forces and occupy Damascus together with the other big cities. In some of those places the half of the population that has been fighting his regime will turn out in jubilation to greet our boys on the streets.
The rest will stay at home, biding their time. And in the fulness of that time, they will fight back. They will murder their fellow Syrians who happen to have the wrong religious allegiance, and they will set off car-bombs for the sake of terror and indiscriminate slaughter.
When they get the chance, they will kill western soldiers too. Those western soldiers will retaliate and kill Syrians, sometimes the wrong ones. The sequence of events we have seen on the streets of Basra and are still seeing on the streets of Kandahar will repeat itself on the streets of Homs and Hama.
And so we will set off on the downward spiral that has dogged every recent western intervention in the Muslim world. It will bottom out in the effective defeat of that intervention, whatever prettifying phrases accompany the eventual withdrawal in five or ten years’ time.
And it will leave the local population mired in poverty as they mourn their innumerable dead, while nursing an undying hatred of the foreigners who have brought about all this.
Blair tells us “it is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want”. Who in Syria are these people, exactly?
A lot of Assad’s supporters belong to the minorities, especially the Christians, that Blair says he wants to protect.
Why do they back a brutal tyranny? Because Assad in his turn protects them against the Sunni majority, poor and oppressed people whose patience has run out.
They seem to have had some liberal and bourgeois leadership at the start of their insurgency but, as the carnage has gone on, this has given way to Islamic extremism. They have not yet really had their chance, but if they do they will exact their vengeance.
In short, it will be rather hard to find people who want what we want so that we can take their side.
Right at the start of the Arab Spring … the Tunisian people knew what they wanted, and before long they got it: a free, secular republic ruled by moderate Islamists.
They got it by themselves too, without outside help. It is the only way that freedom ever comes. Any other way will fail amid blood-soaked horror.