C-130 Hercules cargo plane (Reuters / Tech. Sgt. Brian E.)
“Warplanes and military transporters” have reportedly been moved to Britain’s Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus in the latest sign of the allied forces’ preparations for a military strike on Syria amid bellicose rhetoric against the Syrian government.
Two commercial pilots who regularly fly from Larnaca, Cyprus, claim to have spotted C-130 transport planes from their own aircraft and small formations of possibly European fighter jets from their radar screens, according to the Guardian.
Akrotiri airbase is less than 100 miles from Syria, making it a likely hub for a bombing campaign. Residents near the airfield confirmed to the Guardian that “activity there has been much higher than normal over the past 48 hours.”
The upsurge in flight activity has been denied by a spokesman for Britain's airbases in Cyprus, Reuters reported, also citing Cyprus’s Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides as saying that he doubted the airbases would be used if Western powers did take action against Syria.
“I have the impression that the British bases won't play any primary role... because they are not needed, but we will have to see," Kasoulides told Cypriot state radio.
Downing Street says armed forces are drawing up contingency plans for military action in Syria, Reuters reported.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday recalled members of parliament from their summer break for an urgent discussion. The session is due to be held on Thursday to vote on a possible military response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria.
The Prime Minister said no decision has yet been taken on possible responses to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Cameron has also called for “specific” military action against Syria, saying the UK is not considering getting involved in a Middle East war.
Meanwhile, top military officials from ten Western and Middle Eastern nations – led by US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and his Jordanian counterpart – met in Amman, Jordan, to discuss potential military action in Syria. This follows reports that Dempsey presented potential military options to the White House over the weekend.
On Friday, Reuters revealed the US Navy was expanding its Mediterranean presence with a fourth ship capable launching long-range, subsonic cruise missiles to reach land targets in Syria.
British military assets already near Syria include four warships, the Navy's flagship HMS Bulwark, a helicopter carrier and two frigates near Albania. Meanwhile France – another key player in the possible conflict – has its jet fighters stationed in the United Arab Emirates if needed.
On Tuesday French President Francoise Hollande vowed to increase military support to the Syrian opposition. He said France is “ready to punish” those behind the “chemical massacre” in Syria, adding that his government believes Damascus carried out the attack.
The Obama administration has little doubt the regime of Assad deployed chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus last week, killing hundreds, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.
Reports from Syria of chemical warfare “should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry said, adding that the indiscriminate slaughter of women and children carried out by the Assad regime constitutes a “moral obscenity.”
President Barack Obama has yet to make a determination about how the US will respond, Kerry said, but a decision would be forthcoming.
US officials told the Washington Post late Monday such an attack would likely be limited to no more than a couple of days. According to the sources, determining when the attack would take place depends on an intelligence report on Syria’s culpability for the chemical attack, consultation with allies and the US Congress and a determination that an attack by US and its allies follows international law.
“While investigators are gathering additional information on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscious and guided by common sense,” Sec. Kerry said. “The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the first-hand accounts from the humanitarian organizations on the ground . . . these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us are real: that chemical weapons were used in Syria.”
While top US officials hint at some unequivocal evidence implicating the Syrian government in the chemical attack, anonymous sources told NBC News late Monday the US is planning to release evidence as soon as Tuesday “to prepare the public for a possible military response.”
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday during a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron that there is no evidence such an attack had occurred. “President Putin said that they did not have evidence of whether a chemical weapons attack had taken place or who was responsible,” a British government spokesperson said after the meeting.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed during an emergency press conference in Moscow that the US, Britain and other countries have assembled a “powerful force” and are “readying their ships and planes” for a possible invasion in Syria.
“Official Washington, London and Paris say they have incontrovertible evidence that the Syrian government is behind the chemical attack in Damascus, but they have not yet presented this evidence,” Lavrov said, expressing particular outrage with the newly introduced possibility of NATO staging a strike on Syria without a United Nations mandate.
UN investigators were in the Damascus area Monday, taking samples from the site of Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack in an eastern suburb. The UN team was quickly forced to return to the government checkpoint to replace their car, which “was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area," a spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Martin Nesirky, said.
The United Nations assured that it was still possible for the team of experts to gather necessary evidence despite the time elapsed since the alleged attack. Ban Ki-moon added that the UN will “register a strong complaint” to both the Syrian government and opposition forces as a result of the attack in an effort to stem future aggression against investigation teams.
Back in Washington, White House press Secretary Jay Carney weighed in with a statement of his own Monday, saying use of chemical weapons on a widespread scale outside of Damascus on August 21 was "undeniable."
“As Ban Ki-moon said last week, the UN investigation will not determine who used these chemical weapons, only whether such weapons were used – a judgment that is already clear to the world," Carney said, adding that it is “profoundly in the interest of the United States and the international community that that violation of an international norm be responded to.”
Further, neither Sec. Kerry nor Carney stated what countries agree or disagree with the American narrative of Assad’s alleged chemical attack. Carney did say the president is seeking guidance from members of the US Congress on using force against Syria.
Pursuant to the War Powers Resolution, passed in the US in 1973, use of military force is limited to instances when a formal declaration of war has been declared, specific statutory authorization is granted or during a national emergency. Without immediate congressional approval, the President can commit troops without a declaration of war. In that case, the President must submit a report to Congress on the details of that action. Then after the 60-day period, Congress must approve further action, though the War Powers Resolution has been violated by US presidents in the past. The White House posited in 2011 that US military action without congressional approval in Libya did not violate the War Powers Resolution based on US forces’ supposed limited role in the NATO-led campaign.
While western forces appear ready for possible military action against Syria, Obama said in an interview Friday the United States should be wary of “being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
Obama went on to express reservations for becoming involved in the 30-month Syrian conflict due to a lack of international consensus.
"If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, [and] do we have the coalition to make it work?” said Obama.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confirmed late last week that US military forces are preparing for the possibility that President Obama would order a strike.
"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose," Hagel said Friday, adding a decision must be made quickly given “there may be another (chemical) attack.”