Washington fails to secure Western consensus on action against Syria
DAMASCUS - The Syrian president's friends and foes Wednesday headed for a showdown at the United Nations, as Britain pushed for a resolution to pave the way for military strikes over suspected chemical attacks.
Washington and its allies are pressing for likely military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime despite stern warnings against intervention from key Damascus supporters Russia and Iran.
But, Poland on Wednesday voiced reservations about military action in Syria, in a rare departure from toeing the same line as the United States.
"I'm not convinced that an armed attack will stop the crimes," Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters.
Belgium, which joined military action in Libya and in Mali, is "not yet convinced" of the merits of intervening in Syria and wants proof that Damascus used chemical weapons against its people.
"I am not yet convinced. What we want is to receive information showing the use of these arms," Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said Wednesday in an interview on state broadcaster RTBF.
Belgium hopes for such information from the United Nations, "but should France, the United States and Britain have information on this subject, they could share it with their NATO allies," he said.
He spoke as British Prime Minister David Cameron said London was presenting a resolution "condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad" to a meeting of the Security Council's five permanent members, which got underway in New York on Wednesday morning.
"We've always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that," he said via Twitter.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also urged the council to "find the unity to act... to use its authority for peace."
But a quick vote on the draft resolution looked unlikely.
Russia, which has already used its veto to block resolutions condemning Syria, said it was premature for the council to act before a UN team inspecting the sites of the alleged attacks releases its findings.
The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, confirmed that chemical "substances" were used in the attacks that are thought to have killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.
Inspectors returned to Damascus on Wednesday afternoon after visiting Eastern Ghouta, a site of one of the reported attacks, and Ban suggested they would need until at least Friday to complete their work.
The UN chief added that their findings would then be analysed and the result sent to the Security Council for "any action they would deem to take."
Brahimi said any military action "must be taken after a decision by the Security Council."
However, such as was the case when NATO forces helped rebels oust Libyan leader Moamer Gathhafi in 2011, there is a precedent for action without a UN resolution.
A senior US official said Washington has ruled out unilateral action and was conferring with allies on potential punitive strikes that could last for more than a day.
Any campaign is expected to be limited in scope, likely to last only several days and to target military sites but not chemical weapons stocks themselves, other sources in Washington said.
Analysts expect to see cruise missiles launched from US and allied submarines, ships and possibly warplanes from outside Syria's territorial waters and airspace.
US President Barack Obama's deputies are consulting Turkey, Jordan and other partners on contingency plans in preparation for any retaliation by Syria in the event of US-led action, the official said.
"There's a possibility that the Syrian government would use chemical weapons again. I don't think you can discount that," said the official.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation blamed the Syrian regime for the chemical attacks and called for "decisive action in response."
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the American military was already prepared to act if Obama gave the order -- though White House aides said no final decision had been taken.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel told the BBC. "We are ready to go, like that."
Russia warned of the consequences of any possible military action.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by his ministry as saying "a military solution will lead only to a further destabilisation of the situation in the country and the region."
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki accused the West of inventing excuses to intervene and warned that the country would become a "graveyard" for any invaders.
"Western countries, starting with the United States, are inventing fake scenarios and fictitious alibis to intervene militarily in Syria," he said, quoted by state television.
"Syria... will be the graveyard of the invaders," he added.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad went a step further and accused the West of having pushed rebels fighting Assad to use poison gas as a pretext for an intervention.
"The terrorist groups used sarin gas in several areas of the country... with the encouragement of the Americans, the British and French," he told reporters.
Syria's military, meanwhile, has over the past 48 hours taken up new positions in readiness for air strikes, with dozens of command posts moved, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Iran, the Assad regime's chief regional ally, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that "US intervention will be a disaster for the region," state television quoted him as saying.
"The region is like a gunpowder depot. (Its) future cannot be predicted" in case of a strike on Syria, he added.
Against that background, Israeli army radio announced that a limited number of reservists, attached to units stationed in the north of the country, were being called up for duty.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "we are ready for all scenarios. The Israeli army is ready to defend against all threats and respond firmly to any attempt to harm Israeli citizens."
Oil prices surged, while European stock markets lost ground for a second straight day, but Wall Street was a shade higher in opening trade.
The conflict erupted in March 2011 with peaceful anti-regime protests but, following a brutal crackdown on those demonstrations, it evolved into a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and created millions of refugees.