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U.S. military has moved assets to the region and is "ready to go" if the president orders
As the United States prepared to formally declare that chemical weapons had been used in Syria's civil war, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that the U.S. military stands ready to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order.
U.S. officials said the growing intelligence pointed strongly toward Bashar Assad's government as the culprit in the chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs last week that activists say killed hundreds of people — a claim Assad called "preposterous." The group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since the civil war began more than two years ago.
Response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons poses a confounding dilemma for President Obama. Having campaigned politically to end two existing wars and extract U.S troops from Middle East conflicts he finds himself on the brink of entering another struggle without a U.N. mandate.
Samantha Power, America's ambassador to the United Nations previously wrote a study of genocide called "A Problem from Hell" because that's how then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to the Bosnian civil war and the unpalatable options available to the U.S. in the early 1990s to halt the atrocities by the Serbs. In 2012, at Power's urging, Obama announced the creation of an interagency task force to help stamp out atrocities around the world. Called the Atrocities Prevention Board, it was led by Power during its first year. Meanwhile, the body count in Syria kept spiraling upward. For the past two years, Obama hasn't wanted to intervene militarily in Syria.
Who would? The country is de facto breaking up into jihadist-run "emirates" and Alawite run states. It is also the scene of a proxy war that pits al Qaeda affiliates backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia against Hezbollah, backed by Iran. Whoever ultimately prevails in this fight is hardly going to be an ally of the U.S. It's an ungodly mess that makes even Iraq in 2006 look good. In short, it is a problem from hell.
President Obama faces some of the very same unpalatable choices that have confronted other U.S. national security officials as they tried to prevent mass killings in other distant, war-torn countries.
With President Bashar al-Assad having crossed the "red line" with the use of chemical weapons and the Syrian civil war dragging on into its third year with 100,000 dead and rising, Obama and the US can continue to do nothing or react based on the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He's blasted those attacks as something that "should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality."
As plans for a strike moved forward, Russia, a key ally and arms supplier of Syria's regime, warned Western powers against any military intervention in Syria, saying the use of force without a U.N. mandate would violate international law.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had no plans to be drawn into a military conflict over the civil war in Syria and that Washington and its allies would be repeating "past mistakes" if they intervened in Syria.
The White House is making a legal argument for undertaking a military response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, but says any action taken against the Syrian regime is not intended to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States and 188 other nations are signatories to a chemical weapons convention opposing the use of such weapons. He says those countries have a stake in ensuring that international norms must be respected. Carney says that there must be a response to a clear violation of those norms, but ads, "The options we are considering are not about regime change." He says a change in Syria's leadership must occur through political negotiations.
Secretary of State John Kerry has called the evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack "undeniable." He said international standards against chemical weapons "cannot be violated without consequences."
Any U.S. military action in Syria most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on military targets. Officials said it was likely the targets would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, Assad warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face "what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure."
British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament for an urgent discussion Thursday on a possible military response. The British government said its military was drawing up contingency plans for a possible military attack. Italy, meanwhile, insisted that any strike must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council.
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