Europe prepares for military intervention in Syria

Matthew Schofield

Europe moved closer overnight to military intervention in Syria.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called Parliament back today to debate the situation in Syria. According to news reports, commercial pilots near Cyprus say they have seen British C-130s and radar images of small formations of fighter jets heading to Britain’s Akrotiri airbase, which is only about 150 miles from Syria. The moves appear to be preparation for what is as yet an undefined military response to alleged chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian civil war.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with the defense ministers of France and the United Kingdom this morning. According to a Pentagon statement on the phone conversations, Hagel said the U.S. was ready "to respond to the outrageous chemical attacks" and that he "condemned the violence carried out by the Syrian regime and stated that the United States military is prepared for any contingency involving Syria."

A senior State Department official said a meeting scheduled in the Hague with a Russian delegation has been postponed because of consultations about "the appropriate response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria on August 21." But the official added: "As we’ve long made clear – and as the events of August 21 reinforce – it is imperative that we reach a comprehensive and durable political solution to the crisis in Syria. The United States remains fully invested in that process."

In Damascus Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem said that if the U.S. attacked, his country would employ "all means available" to defend itself. He said the U.S. has "a history of lies" and likened its claims that Syria had used chemical weapons to the warnings a decade ago that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as a presage to the invasion of Iraq.

Syrian rebels leaders have allegedly been told to expect a western strike against the Assad Regime “within days.”

The Reuters news agency has reported that someone leaving a meeting in Istanbul of the Syrian National Coalition said: “The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days, and that they should still prepare for peace talks at Geneva.”

Meanwhile in Russia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich reiterated the view of his government that the west is rushing to judgment and considering action long before the facts are established. He said in a statement, “Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region, are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We are calling on our American partners and all members of the world community to demonstrate prudence, strict observance of international law, especially the fundamental principles of the UN Charter.”

While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made it clear that his nation urges restraint, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC today that strong non-military efforts have not prevented the escalation of events in Syria. He said that even without UN approval, “the great humanitarian need and humanitarian distress” could justify action.

“We have tried those other methods – the diplomatic methods – and we will continue to try those,” he said. “But they have failed so far.”

The 22-member Arab League began meeting in Cairo to discuss the situation.

French newspaper website Le Figaro said that “a green light is expected” for action in Syria, and a final “decision will be taken soon.” The website also quoted an unnamed diplomat asking, “The question is when, but the real question is for what?"

And former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in today’s Times of London, “If we do not intervene to support freedom and democracy in Egypt and Syria, the Middle East faces catastrophe.”

He went on to say: “I understand every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil, to watch but not to intervene, to ratchet up language but not to engage in the hard, even harsh business of changing reality on the ground. But we have collectively to understand the consequence of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work.”

Still, in the United Kingdom, not everyone was sure that the time for intervention is here. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander told the BBC as far as committing British troops, neither he nor other members of Parliament were “prepared to write the government a blank cheque."

“Is it a broad objective of changing the civil war or trying to remove Bashar al-Assad, or is it a more limited objective of trying to degrade his capability to use these weapons with impunity?” he asked.

And in Germany, the news website of Der Spiegel wondering if “Syria intervention may endanger Merkel reelection” in reference to federal elections in September. The article noted that a decade ago, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder took a stand against involvement in war in Iraq -- a move that deeply damaged relations with the United States, but may have allowed his party to remain in control of the German government.

The article noted, “Eleven years later, Germany is once again preparing for a general election. And once again, the West is weighing intervention in the Middle East. This time around, though, Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be betting that the horrific images that emerged from last week's apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria will be enough to trump the German electorate's traditional pacifism.”

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Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Foreign Staff