Syria expects a US attack “at any moment,” a senior Syrian official told AFP Saturday, hours after UN inspectors probing a suspected chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on August 21, left the country.
“We are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment,” said the Syrian security official.
A Kuwaiti paper cited by Israel Radio Saturday quoted Gulf sources as saying that the US plans to strike on Saturday, or Sunday at the latest. The paper quoted diplomatic sources as saying that America will launch strikes in Syria from various bases, including those in Turkey and Cyprus.
Earlier Saturday, the team of chemical weapons inspectors, who were in Damascus for several days gathering evidence of the possible chemical weapons attack, left Syria, crossing into Lebanon. This came just hours after US President Barack Obama said he was weighing “limited and narrow” action against a Syrian regime that the administration has bluntly accused of launching the deadly attack.
The UN team left its Damascus hotel early Saturday and made its way to the neighboring state from which it will head on to the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, a 6th US warship, the USS San Antonio, has joined the five Navy destroyers currently in the Mediterranean Sea waiting for the order to launch. The USS San Antonio is an amphibious assault ship, which is carrying helicopters and some 300 Marines, according to reports, but it has no cruise missiles, so it is not expected to participate in the attack. Instead, the ship’s long-planned transit across the Mediterranean was interrupted so that it could remain in the area to help if needed.
The destroyers are armed with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of about 1,000 nautical miles and are used for deep, precise targeting. Each one is about 20 feet long and less than two feet in diameter and carries a 1,000 pound warhead. The missiles fly at low altitudes, and their range allows the ships to sit far off the coast, out of range of any potential response by the Syrian government.
The inspectors’ departure brings the looming confrontation between the US and President Bashar Assad’s regime one step closer to coming to a head. Obama has said that if he opts for a military strike, any operation would be limited in scope and only aimed at punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
And as the international community dithers on how to respond, the UN inspectors will arrive in the Netherlands — having endured repeated delays, unrelenting scrutiny and even snipers’ bullets in Damascus over the course of their stay — to set in motion a meticulous process of analyzing samples at specially accredited laboratories.
According to the team’s UN mandate, the analysis will establish if a chemical attack took place, but not who was responsible for the deadly August 21 attack that Doctors Without Borders says killed 355 people and included the use of toxic gas. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Washington knows, based on intelligence, that 1,429 people were killed, and that the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch the chemical weapons assault.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to get an initial briefing on the UN team’s work this weekend from disarmament chief Angela Kane, but it remains unclear exactly how long the process of examining samples will take.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team had concluded its collection of evidence, including visits to field hospitals, interviews with witnesses and doctors, and gathering biological samples and environmental samples.
Concerns about possible US action include the potential retaliation by the Syrian regime or its proxies against US allies in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel. That would inject a dangerous new dynamic into a Syrian civil war that has already killed more than 100,000 people, forced nearly 2 million to flee the country and inflamed sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
The Syrian government dismissed the administration’s claims as “flagrant lies” akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV late Friday said that “under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians.”
In Damascus, residents stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic.
Syrian state TV on Saturday morning broadcast footage of Syrian soldiers training, fighter jets soaring in the sky and tanks firing at unseen targets, all to the backdrop of martial music. The station’s morning talk shows were dominated by discussions about a potential US military strike.