BEIRUT / AMMAN: Western forces could attack Syria within days, the United States and its allies have told rebels fighting President Bashar al Assad, opening up new risks in a war that is spreading hatreds across the Middle East.
Participants at a meeting in Istanbul told Reuters that US and other diplomats warned Syrian opposition leaders on Monday to expect action that would punish Assad for poison gas attacks – and to be ready to negotiate if his government sues for peace.
The United States said its forces in the region were “ready to go”, but the White House insisted President Barack Obama was still considering various options, not just military force, and was not intent on bringing about “regime change” in Damascus.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, anxious like Obama not to emulate the Afghan and Iraqi entanglements that beset their predecessors, said any strikes would be “specific”, a penalty for the use of chemical weapons, and would not drag the allies deeper into a Syrian civil war now well into its third year.
He recalled parliament for a debate on Syria on Thursday.
United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off until Wednesday a second trip to the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus where activists say hundreds of civilians died a week ago.
But while UN evidence of chemical warfare could bolster a Western argument for intervention in the face of likely Russian and Chinese opposition at the United Nations, Western leaders – and the Arab League – have already declared Assad guilty.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the rebel Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 countries, including Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel. The rebel leaders proposed targets for cruise missiles and bombing.
Planning appears to focus on air strikes. There is little public support in Western countries for troops to invade Syria.