By Fred Pleitgen and Ben Brumfield, CNN
Warships armed with cruise missiles plow the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And U.S. officials are all but telling United Nations inspectors in Syria to get out of the way.
For almost two years, President Barack Obama has avoided direct military involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war as the death toll skyrocketed.
Now, after a suspected chemical attack last week obliterated the “red line” Obama set, a flurry of comments and activity seem to be laying the groundwork for a military strike.
A senior Defense Department official told CNN that any strike could be completed “within several days.”
Cabinet-level officials held a National Security Council meeting at the White House Tuesday night, and British security officials in London meet Wednesday to hash out options.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, U.N. inspectors combed through areas on the outskirts of Damascus Wednesday in search of evidence that chemical weapons were used in last week’s attack that rebels say killed more than 1,300 people.
“It does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people,” U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said Wednesday.
He said the death toll could be in the hundreds, or possibly more than a thousand.
“This is of course unacceptable. This is outrageous. This confirms how dangerous the situation in Syria is and how important for the Syrians and the international community to really develop the political will to address this issue seriously and look for solutions for it.”
Israeli military intelligence provided intercepts among Syrian military commanders that discussed the movement of chemical weapons to the area of the attack before it happened, a diplomatic source told CNN Wednesday.
One of the areas inspectors have looked at is Zamalka, believed to have suffered the most casualties following the August 21 incident.
But U.S. officials aren’t placing much stock in the U.N. mission.
“We clearly value the U.N.’s work — we’ve said that from the beginning — when it comes to investigating chemical weapons in Syria. But we’ve reached a point now where we believe too much time has passed for the investigation to be credible and that it’s clear the security situation isn’t safe for the team in Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday.
Instead, the U.S. and key allies all agree something ought to be done — and increasingly that is leaning toward a military solution.
U.S. forces are ready, if an order to strike comes down, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Australia said it won’t send troops.
Efforts for a U.N. resolution
Britain has drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution “condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad and authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians,” David Cameron tweeted Wednesday. The resolution will be put forward at the U.N. in New York later on Wednesday, he said.
But going through the United Nations probably won’t be a viable option for the United States and its allies.
Russia — which is a close ally of Syria and has a permanent seat on the council — would likely block a resolution. China, which also has a permanent seat, would probably also object to any military measures against Syria.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Wednesday urged all members of the Security Council, especially Russia, to back it.
Outside of the United Nations, a military coalition is taking shape among Western powers.
Along with Britain, France has also signaled it would join Western military intervention against forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that France is “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people.”
The French parliament will hold a session next week to debate the situation in Syria.
NATO ambassadors are to take up the topic of Syria at their regular Wednesday meeting.
Obama continues to review options, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, adding that “nothing has been decided.”
Those options include peaceful diplomacy, which critics have called a “do nothing” approach.
The next step is the release of an intelligence report about the alleged chemical weapons attack that the United States conducted independently of the U.N. It is to come out later this week, said a Washington official who was not authorized to speak to the media.
The White House has ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or implementing a no-fly zone to blunt al-Assad’s aerial superiority over rebels.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island believes that the most realistic option would be cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships at sea, noting that “we can have precision weapons that could be fired and keep our aircraft out of Syrian airspace and away from their anti-aircraft systems.”
“The most effective targets would have command-and-control, because you could send a signal to the Syrian regime that if they don’t agree to international standards, if they don’t make it clear and make it obvious that they’re not going to use these weapons, and that we can inflict additional damage on their command-and-control,” he added.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem says the United States has trumped up charges against his government as an excuse for an already desired intervention.
“We all hear the drums of war,” he said Tuesday. “They want to attack Syria. I believe to use chemical weapons as a pretext is not right.”
Syrian officials have steadfastly denied using chemical weapons in this or other cases.
If foreign powers do strike the Middle Eastern nation, its foreign minister said the government and its forces will fight back.
“Syria is not easy to swallow,” said Moallem. “We have the materials to defend ourselves. We will surprise others.”
It has backers in Russia and Iran.
Russia is leading the charge internationally against a strike, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying there is no proof yet Syria’s government is behind last week’s chemical attack. It accused Washington of trying to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention.”
“The West handles the Islamic world the way a monkey handles a grenade,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted.
And Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Wednesday of “graver conditions” should strikes be carried out.
“If any country attacks another when it wants, that is like the Middle Ages,” he said.
Some are pushing back at home and abroad on the White House’s talk of intervention.
Military involvement seems unpopular with Americans. In opinion polls, few citizens approve of it.
Some members of Congress say that before Obama orders any strike, he should go through them first.
A group of 31 Republican and six Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to the president urging him “to consult and receive authorization” before signing off on any military action.
Some fear a U.S. strike could stoke the conflict, not calm it. Others don’t want the administration to go it alone. Reed of Rhode Island said NATO allies must be involved, as well as members of the Arab League.
Former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia is dead set against it. “Both sides are bad,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN. “There is no victory to be had there.”
International law requires that the U.N. Security Council approve such military actions before they are taken, Brahimi said Wednesday.
“I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger happy,” he said from Geneva, Switzerland.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seemed to ask for a reprieve Wednesday for the sake of his inspectors in Syria. “The team needs time to do its job,” he said from The Hague, where he visited the International Criminal Court.
He said the U.N. has already collected valuable evidence.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen reported from Syria. CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali reported from Atlanta and Jomana Karadsheh from Jordan. Ben Brumfield wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Greg Botelho, Michael Pearson, Boriana Milanova, Chris Lawrence, Jim Acosta, Samira Said, Josh Levs, Joe Sterling, Elise Labott, Jill Dougherty and Saskya Vandoorne also contributed to this report.
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