The US military is ready to strike Syria, the top US defence
official said Tuesday as the momentum also grew in France and Britain for
strong, punitive action, and the Syrian opposition said it was informed of an
imminent military attack.
"We are prepared. We are ready to go" if given such an order from President Barack Obama, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil ... whatever option the president wishes to take," he said.
Obama is weighing options on how to respond to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, but no decisions have yet been made as the president consults with allies and the US Congress, spokesman Jay Carney said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned his country would defend itself in a way that would "surprise" its enemies.
The United States and its allies blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government for chemical weapons attacks Wednesday in Eastern Ghouta and Maadamiyet al-Sham, outside Damascus, which the opposition claimed killed at least 1,300 people.
The discussions were not centered on whether chemical weapons had been used, but on what the appropriate response should be, Carney said. "There must be a response," he added.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament for a vote Thursday on Britain's response, and the country's armed forces were making contingency plans for military action in a "proportionate response" to "deter" al-Assad's government from using such weapons in the future, Downing Street said.
"We have been informed of a strike by the world powers to punish the Syrian regime, but we do not have the details," said Monzer Makhous, the main opposition coalition's envoy in Paris. "This is being left for the world powers to decide."
He added: "We will support any move to punish such a regime, which has been killing its own people to remain in power at any expense."
France was "ready to punish" those who take the "vile decision to gas innocent people," President Francois Hollande said as he prepared to meet with his defence cabinet Wednesday.
"Everything leads us to believe that it is the regime that committed this abject act," Hollande said.
France said it will increase its military support to the coalition within the limits of its commitments to Europe.
While US broadcaster NBC reported that Washington could launch a rocket offensive against Syria as early as Thursday, a 20-member team of UN chemical weapons inspectors is currently in Damascus.
The work of the team - which was targeted by snipers Monday while en route to Maadamiyet al-Sham, south-west of the capital - was postponed Tuesday for 24 hours because of safety concerns.
Hollande said France had a "responsibility" to "seek the most appropriate response to the Syrian regime's abuses once the bulk of the United Nation investigators mission is completed."
But it appeared that Western nations were not waiting for the UN experts' findings to lay the groundwork for military action in Syria.
NBC cited unnamed high-ranking government officials who said the offensive would last more than three days and be limited to a specific target area.
Carney however stressed that no decisions had yet been made, and that any action would not be aimed specifically at "regime change."
A strike would be intended as a warning to al-Assad rather than an attempt to decimate the regime's military capacity, NBC reported.
Al-Moallem, the Syrian minister, promised a defence: "Either we surrender or defend ourselves with the available means - I say this is the better option."
"We have weapons of self-defence, and we will surprise the others with them," he said.
Hagel stressed the US military was "prepared for any contingency involving Syria" and pledged close cooperation with US allies as he spoke to his French and British counterparts over the phone, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
While the Arab League did not discuss military action, it blamed the Syrian government for last week's apparent chemical attacks and called on the UN Security Council to act.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military would respond with "strength" should the Syrian regime retaliate against Israel in the event of a US-led missile strike.
The Greek Foreign Ministry refused to comment on a newspaper report saying the US has requested the use of its bases in the southern Peloponnese.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin would support UN-led action in Syria.
But unanimous approval for such a move from the veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council is unlikely because of opposition from Syrian allies Russia and China, who have repeatedly voted down resolutions condemning al-Assad.
The UN said more than 100,000 people have been killed since March 2011 when an uprising against al-Assad started, which quickly descended into civil war.
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