US destroyer fires Tomahawk cruise missile in Mediterranean [file] Photo: REUTERS
AMMAN/BEIRUT/BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
Western powers told the Syrian opposition to expect a strike against President Bashar Assad's forces within days, according to sources who attended a meeting between envoys and the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul.
...According to the sources, opposition members provided western military authorities with a list of Assad regime targets to hit.
The meeting at a hotel in downtown Istanbul was between senior figures of the Syrian National Coalition, including its president Ahmad Jarba, and envoys from 11 core "Friends of Syria" alliance members, that included US envoy Robert Ford, the top US official handling the Syria file, the sources said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a television interview with the BBC on Tuesday that the US military is ready to act immediately should President Barack Obama order action against Syria over a chemical weapons attack.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel said during a trip to Brunei, according to a partial transcript provided by the BBC.
Asked if the US military was ready to respond just "like that," Hagel said: "We are ready to go, like that."
US allies were drafting plans for air strikes and other military action against Syria on Tuesday, as Assad's enemies vowed to punish a poison gas attack that Washington called a "moral obscenity".
Facing Russian and Chinese disapproval that will complicate hopes for a united front backed by international law, and keen to win over wary voters at home, Western leaders seem in no rush to pull the trigger. British Prime Minister David Cameron called parliament back from recess for a session on Syria on Thursday.
UN experts trying to establish what killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last Wednesday were finally able to cross the frontline on Monday to see survivors - despite being shot at in government-held territory. But they put off a second visit until Wednesday.
However, US officials said Obama already had little doubt Assad's forces were to blame. Turkey, Syria's neighbor and part of the US-led NATO military pact, called it a "crime against humanity" that demanded international reaction.
The Syrian government, which denies using gas, said it would press on with its offensive against rebels around the capital. Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said US strikes would help al-Qaida allies but called Western leaders "delusional" if they hoped to aid the rebels to create a balance of power in Syria.
In Britain, whose forces have supported the US military in a succession of wars, Cameron called for an appropriate level of retribution for using chemical weapons.
"Our forces are making contingency plans," a spokesman for Cameron told reporters. London and its allies would make a "proportionate response" to the "utterly abhorrent" attack.
Top generals from the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war.