Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed that his country will "defend itself against any aggression," state media reported today, as foreign powers ramped up talk of a possible military strike to punish the regime for allegedly deploying poison gas last week.
The comments by Assad, who has vehemently denied his troops used chemicals in an Aug. 21 attack and has accused rebel fighters of using poison gas on government troops, were reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Thursday. They come a day after President Barack Obama said U.S. retaliation for any Syrian chemical weapons use would send a "strong signal" to Assad's regime.
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"Threats to launch a direct aggression against Syria will make it more adherent to its well-established principles and sovereign decisions stemming from the will of its people, and Syria will defend itself against any aggression," Assad said, according to the SANA report.
Talk of retaliatory action against Syria has been fast and furious since the Aug. 21 attack in which Assad's forces are alleged to have unleashed a chemical assault in three suburbs near Damascus. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders puts the death toll from that attack at 355.
The UN has estimated that more than 100,000 have been killed in fighting in Syria's two-year civil war, which began from uprisings against Assad in March 2011.
On Thursday, UN experts in Syria toured the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka, according to anti-regime activists and amateur video. It was the inspectors' third day of investigations.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told reporters the inspection team will be leaving by Saturday, although he had originally requested more time for inspectors to gather evidence.
He told reporters in Vienna that he expects inspectors to report to him as soon as they leave Syria, and that their analysis would be shared with members of the Security Council. It will also be presented to all UN member states.
"They will continue their investigation activities until tomorrow, Friday, and will come out of Syria by Saturday morning and will report to me as soon as they come out of Syria," Ban said.
Ban has repeatedly stated his wish for a diplomatic solution to the escalating situation in Syria, as Western powers such as France, Britain and the U.S. appear to be edging towards possible military intervention.
A UN Security Council meeting held to discuss Syria Thursday afternoon lasted about 45 minutes, CBC's Melissa Kent reported from New York. Russia and China were first to leave, despite Russia having called the meeting. It's not yet clear whether any decisions were made at the closed-door session.
British politicians debated the Syrian response during an emergency Parliament session on Thursday.
Prime Minister David Cameron said it would now be legal under humanitarian doctrine to launch a military strike against Syria, even without authorization from the UN Security Council.
Cameron said it was his mission to seek consensus across all party lines to support punitive action against Syria.
"It is not about invading, it is not about regime change," he said during the debate. "It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime, nothing else."
The use of chemical weapons is prohibited under international law.
Canada won't have military mission
Canada has expressed outrage over the reports, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Thursday that Canada has no plans for a military mission of its own in Syria, although the government supports its allies and has been convinced of the need for "forceful action."
Harper told reporters that Canada supports punitive measures against Syria, albeit as a "reluctant convert" to the idea that such measures could mean Western military action.
He noted that failure on the part of the international community to act forcefully against Syria for using chemical weapons would set "an extremely dangerous precedent."
"This is a very big risk and we do believe and we do support our allies who are contemplating a forceful action to deal with this," he said.
"That said, at the present time, the government of Canada has no plans … of our own to have a Canadian military mission."
Meanwhile, Russia's Interfax news agency reported Thursday that Moscow is sending two warships — a missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet and a large anti-submarine ship from the Northern Fleet — to the east Mediterranean.
Russia has denied that the naval movements is a response to Western powers preparing military action against its ally, Syria.
A source in the armed forces' general staff, quoted by Interfax, said the ships would be deployed in the "coming days."
Russia's naval forces move to Mediterranean
Any strengthening of the Russian navy's forces in the Mediterranean could fuel tension, particularly as the U.S. has said it is repositioning its warships in the Mediterranean.
For their part, U.S. intelligence officials have readied briefings for Congress on evidence aimed at linking Assad to the alleged chemical attack.
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But even as the U.S. moves closer to possible military action, new hurdles appear to be slowing the formation of an international coalition to undertake such a strike. And questions remain about the strength of the case against Assad.
Russia blocked British efforts to seek a resolution at the United Nations that would authorize "all necessary measures" under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of international armed force to back up UN decisions.
As was expected, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council failed to reach an agreement as Russia reiterated its objections to international intervention in the Syrian crisis. Russia, along with China, has blocked past attempts to sanction the Assad government.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would hold off on joining any military efforts until a UN chemical weapons inspection team releases its findings.
Still, the Obama administration vowed to take action even without the backing of allies or the UN. The president said that while he had not settled on a response to last week's purported chemical weapons attack, he said the U.S. has concluded that Assad's regime perpetrated the attack.
"And if that's so," Obama said during an interview with NewsHour on PBS, "then there needs to be international consequences."
However, U.S. officials say the intelligence linking Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack is no "slam dunk." They say questions remain about who controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores, and there are doubts about whether Assad himself ordered such a strike.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence builds a case that Assad's forces are most likely responsible, but also points to gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture. The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
American intelligence intercepted communications among lower-level Syrian military commanders discussing the chemical attack, but the communications don't specifically link the attack to an official senior enough to tie the killings to Assad himself, according to three U.S. intelligence officials.
- Syria attack a tough sell for Obama
The administration was planning an intelligence teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and the national security committees in Congress, U.S. officials and congressional aides said. Officials also said an unclassified version of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence would be made public this week.
The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military decided to use chemical weapons without Assad's authorization. That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report laying out evidence against Assad. The report was promised earlier this week by administration officials.
Obama said he was not seeking a lengthy, open-ended conflict in Syria, indicating that any U.S. response would be limited in scope. But he argued that Syria's use of chemical weapons not only violated international norms, but threatened "America's core self-interest."
"We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable," he said.
With files from The Canadian Press, Reuters, The Associated Press