Aaron Hostutler/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images
Chuck Hagel, the United States secretary of defense, expressed readiness for any Western-led military strike on Syria.
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON — Prospects for a Western-led military strike on Syria appeared to grow Tuesday as the American defense secretary said United States forces were ready for any contingency, the British military drafted plans and the Arab League joined the powers that have accused the Syrian government of a mass killing of civilians last week with a chemical munitions attack.
The developments came as United Nations weapons inspectors in Syria postponed a second visit to suspected attack sites on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, after having failed to secure assurances of their safety, the United Nations and Syrian officials said.
Even without the evidence that the inspectors are collecting, the United States and other Western powers have concluded that the attack last week, which killed hundreds of people, was caused by banned chemical munitions and that Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible, crossing a threshold that required a forceful response.
Chuck Hagel, the United States secretary of defense, said in an interview with the BBC that American forces had “moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take.” Asked how soon these forces could be ready, Mr. Hagel said, “We are ready to go.”
Mr. Hagel would not specify the type of action envisioned, but Obama administration officials have suggested that any military response would be limited — cruise missiles launched from American warships in the Mediterranean that would strike specific Syrian military targets, for example — and not a sustained bombing campaign intended to topple the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who is seeking to defeat an insurgency well into its third year.
The interview was broadcast as Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said Parliament would be recalled early from its summer recess to deal with the Syria crisis, and British media said fighter aircraft had been dispatched sent to Cyprus, where Britain maintains an air base that could be used as a launching area against Syria, 100 miles away.
In Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting, blamed Mr. Assad’s government for what it called a “heinous crime” and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
Mr. Assad and his subordinates have denied responsibility for the attack and have asserted that insurgents fighting to topple him carried it out. Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s principal supporters in the conflict, have backed his version of events and warned against any Western military intervention.
On the ground in Syria, United Nations inspectors, who came under sniper fire on Monday before a visit to one location, had been set “to continue their investigation in a different site” on Tuesday, the United Nations said in a statement. But after the attack on Monday, “a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.” The statement said the inspectors had not received “confirmation of access.”
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said that the inspectors’ trip had been delayed by one day because of disputes among the rebel groups. The minister said the insurgents could not agree on issues related to guaranteeing the inspectors’ safety. He gave no further details.
The postponement coincided with intensified international diplomacy and maneuvering.
In a message on Twitter, Mr. Cameron said the speaker of Parliament had agreed to his request to recall lawmakers on Thursday, when there would be a “clear” proposal from the government and a vote on how Britain should respond to the attacks.
The recall was apparently designed to secure parliamentary support for action and to head off complaints by lawmakers that they had been sidelined.
Earlier, Mr. Cameron’s spokesman said, “We are continuing to discuss with our international partners what the right response should be, but, as part of this, we are making contingency plans for the armed forces.”
British officials, who were not identified by name under departmental rules, told reporters that Mr. Cameron would meanwhile continue discussions with world leaders on what was termed a “proportionate response” to deter attacks in the future using chemical weapons.
Mr. Cameron cut short a vacation and returned to London on Tuesday to lead a meeting of Britain’s national security committee scheduled for Wednesday.
His support of the United States recalled earlier moments of crisis under his government and that of his predecessor, Tony Blair, when Britain projected itself as playing a decisive role in far-flung crises at America’s side, even though the United States wields far greater military clout.
Britain seems anxious to maintain the impetus of efforts to devise a tough response to the attack, which Mr. Cameron’s office, like Washington and Paris, has attributed to Mr. Assad’s forces.
The Press Association of Britain quoted officials as indicating that a decision on the nature of any military response could be taken before the United Nations inspectors report on their findings.
In Washington, using some of the most aggressive language used yet by the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday accused the Syrian government of the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and of cynical efforts to cover up its responsibility for a “cowardly crime.”
The issue has deepened the divide between the United States and Russia, Syria’s main international ally and sponsor.
According to Agence France-Presse, Moscow warned on Tuesday that a military intervention in Syria could have “catastrophic consequences” for the region and called on the international community to show “prudence” over the crisis.
“Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region, are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said.
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