US President Barack Obama has approached Congress for authorization for a limited strike against Syria, after a reported chemical attack near Damascus killed hundreds on August 21. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have threatened to retaliate against Israel should a strike take place, though officials estimate the country will not come under attack. Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s strongest backers, has said it will not intervene, but Moscow still sent a warship to the region to monitor developments.
Russia scrambles plane to pull citizens from Syria
Russia sent a large airlift freight plane to Syria to evacuate its remaining citizens as the threat of a US strike against the Damascus regime continued to loom, Moscow said Sunday.
Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry made the plane available for any Russians or citizens of the former Soviet Union still in the country who want to leave, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
“An Il-76 plane took off for Latakia on Sunday morning,” ministry spokeswoman Irina Rossius said. “The plane will carry both Russians and citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) from Syria.”
According to the report, last month Russia flew 90 people, mostly women and children, out of Syria on a Ilyushin Il-62 airliner adding to over 700 Russian and former Soviet citizens who have bolted the country since the beginning of the year.
Earlier in the year, the country, which has backed the regime in Damascus, evacuated a military base near Latakia.
Later this week the US congress is set to vote on whether or not to authorize a limited strike on Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack last month that Washington blames on the Damascus regime.
Pentagon planning for three-day assault
US military leaders are considering a much more intense assault on Syrian positions than originally reported, according to a Saturday Los Angeles Times article.
According to anonymous officials cited in the report, the Pentagon is now considering “many more” potential targets than the initial figure of 50 previously given, as well as deploying increased firepower in the assault, partially in response to the time the Assad government has had to redeploy their forces since the use of chemical weapons was first reported.
However, an official said that even an extended campaign “will not strategically impact the current situation in the war, which the Syrians have well in hand,” and added that the fighting could continue for another two years.
White House chief of staff to make TV rounds
The White House media push to garner support for military action against Syria was set to kick off Sunday, with President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough set to hit five Sunday talk shows.
He will appear on NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and CNN.
Vice President Joe Biden plans to host a dinner Sunday night for a group of Senate Republicans. And lawmakers should expect more phone calls from top officials.
On Monday, Obama will record interviews with Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and CNN. He is set to give a national address on the issue the next day.
AP and Times of Israel staff
PM says ‘sober’ policies brought Rosh Hashanah quiet
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Israel an “island of tranquility” in the midst of a storm during the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Netanyahu began by thanking the members of the country’s security establishment for watching over the nation during the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year festival last weekend.
“I would like to thank the soldiers of the IDF, the officers of the Israel Police and Border Police, and all the men and women of our security services for the quiet and peaceful holiday that we just had throughout the country, in the cities and out in nature,” he said. “This is not self-evident given the storm raging around us. We are watching over Israel, an island of tranquility, quiet and security, which also stems from our responsible and balanced policy and the very professional and vigorous action — only some of which is known to the public — by all of the security arms.”
“The combination of these two things — a sober, balanced and responsible policy and professional security action — is what brought us this quiet,” Netanyahu added. “Insofar as it depends on us, we are working so that it will continue. I would like to take this opportunity to wish ministers, as well as the entire Jewish people, a good year. May you be inscribed for good. May we have a good and safe year.”
Turkey scrambles F-16s
Ankara ordered a number of F-16 jet fighters to take to the air in response to reports of movements along the Turkish-Syrian border, Today’s Zaman reported.
The jets were launched from a base in southeastern Turkey on a reconnaissance mission toward Syrian territory and have been ordered to use force if Turkish airspace is violated, according to the report.
A report in Al-Arabiya, citing local media sources, says that a large explosion was reported in Turkish territory, close to the Syrian border, and that a Turkish hospital in the border town of Reyhanli has been alerted in advance of possible casualties.
UK foreign secretary urges action in Syria
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the risks of not taking action against Syria outweighed those of a limited campaign in response to an alleged chemical attack by the Damascus regime.
Speaking with the BBC on Sunday, Hague warned against the global implications of failing to punish those responsible for wielding chemical weapons.
“I do believe very strongly the world must stand up to the use of chemical weapons and there is a debate now taking place in the US Congress,” he said. “The risks of not doing so in my view are greater than the risks of doing so in a limited, proportionate and careful way.”
In late August the British parliament voted against the UK taking part in US-led military action against Syria for the apparent chemical weapons attack last month, which the US says killed over 1,400 people. However, Hague remained undeterred.
“If it is decided in the various parliaments of the world that no one will stand up to the use of chemical weapons and take any action about that, that will be a very alarming moment in the affairs of the world,” he said.
Hague added that although he accepts that there is strong public opinion in the UK against becoming entangled in the Syrian conflict, the heart of the matter was the use of chemical weapons, not just the civil war in that country.
“This issue is about chemical weapons, which is a bigger issue than Syria,” he said. “Allowing the spread of use of chemical weapons in the 21st century is an evil that we have to stand up to, one way or another.”
Despite his continued support for intervention, Hague made it clear that the government was not, in his words, “gung-ho about military action.”
Hague revealed that he had met with moderate representatives of the Syrian opposition and asserted that they were key to resolving the situation.
“There are some good people in Syria… without them we can’t get the political solution we need,” he said.
US says ‘common sense’ points at Assad, not ‘irrefutable’ evidence
The White House asserted Sunday that a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” makes the Syrian government responsible for a chemical weapons attack that President Barack Obama says demands a US military response.
As part of a major push to win the backing of a divided Congress and skeptical American public, Obama’s top aide made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to press the case for “targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade” the capabilities of Syrian President Bashar Assad “to carry out these terrible attacks again.”
At the same time, chief of staff Denis McDonough acknowledged the risks that military action could drag the US into the middle of a brutal civil war and endanger allies such as Israel with a retaliatory attack.
The US is “planning for every contingency in that regard and we’ll be ready for that,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Al-Qaeda rebels control Christian village
Syrian activists say rebels including al-Qaeda-linked fighters have gained control of the Christian village of Maaloula northeast of the capital Damascus.
The rebel advance into the area this week was reportedly spearheaded by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, exacerbating fears among Syrians and religious minorities in particular about the role played by Islamic extremists within the rebel ranks.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Nusra Front backed by another group, the Qalamon Liberation Front, moved into the village after heavy clashes with the army late Saturday.
“The army pulled back to the outskirts of the village and both (rebel groups) are in total control of Maaloula now,” he told The Associated Press Sunday.
He said pro-government fighters remain inside the village, in hiding.
British jets scrambled in Cyprus
Two British fighter jets were scrambled in Cyprus, after unidentified aircraft thought to have taken off from Syria entered international airspace, UK media revealed on Sunday.
A British defense ministry official told Sky News that British Typhoon eurofighters took off from the RAF’s Akrotiri airbase on Monday “to investigate unidentified aircraft to the east of Cyprus.”
The planes, the statement said, were “flying legally in international airspace and no intercept was required.”
Some media outlets speculated that the Syrian aircraft were testing British air defenses.
Amid increased talk of a US-led strike on Syria, last week the RAF sent six fighter planes to Cyprus, in what the British defense ministry termed a “precautionary measure.”
Netanyahu briefs security cabinet on Syria
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday briefed his security cabinet about recent developments in Syria and about the prospect of an American-led military strike against the country.
According to Army Radio, Netanyahu asked his ministers for their view regarding Israeli involvement in the building of an international coalition against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The report said that in recent days Obama called Netanyahu and asked him for his help in recruiting foreign countries and members of Congress to throw their weight behind a US-led operation.