UN experts who collected samples from last week's alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus left Syria for the Netherlands on Saturday, hours after U.S. President Barack Obama said he is weighing "limited and narrow" action against the Syrian regime his administration blames for the attack.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Obama not to rush into a decision. The Russian leader said he was convinced the attack was a provocation carried out by those who want to draw the U.S. into the conflict, but that Washington should show any evidence to the contrary to the United Nations inspectors and the UN Security Council.
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"If there is evidence it should be presented," Putin said. "If it is not presented, that means it does not exist."
Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest allies. Putin's comments were his first on the crisis since the suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
UN inspectors arrived in Amsterdam after spending several days in Syria collecting soil samples and interviewing victims of an attack last week in the Damascus suburbs. Officials said it could me more than a week before their final report is complete.
With the inspectors now out of Syria, the looming confrontation between the U.S. and Assad's regime moves one step closer to coming to a head. Most observers viewed U.S. military action as unlikely while the UN team was still inside Syria, but the Obama administration has made clear that it is confident in its assessment and could act before the UN releases the results of its probe.
Obama has said that if he opts for a military strike, any operation would be limited in scope and only aimed at punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
Death toll discrepancy
But U.S. action carries the potential to trigger retaliation by the Syrian regime or its proxies against U.S. allies in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel. That would be dangerous new turn for the Syrian civil war, which has already killed more than 100,000 people, forced nearly 2 million to flee and inflamed tensions across the Middle East.
While Obama long has been wary of U.S. military involvement in the conflict, the administration on Friday forcefully made its case for action. It accused the Assad regime of carrying out what it says was a chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,429 people — far more than previous estimates — including more than 400 children.
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However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the main groups monitoring casualties in Syria, said Saturday it has only been able to confirm 502 deaths, identifying victims by name.
The Britain-based group, which draws its information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, urged the Obama administration to release the information its far higher death toll is based on.
With France as his only major public ally, Obama told reporters he has a strong preference for multilateral action.
"Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it," he said.
The U.S. already has warships in place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria's coastal waters. The vessels are armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can strike distant targets without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
The Syrian government dismissed the administration's claims as "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state television late Friday said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians."
Damascus residents brace for strikes
In Damascus, residents braced themselves in anticipation of strikes.
"We are anticipating it starting tonight, since the inspectors have left, but we don't really know," said Nour, who lives on the outskirts of Damascus.
"Just in case, we stocked up on some water and food. Our building has a basement that we can use as a shelter. The building supervisor started preparing it a couple of days ago, he cleaned it and we put some pillows, blankets, water and a first aid kit with basic medications," said the 23-year-old pharmacy student. She gave only her first name for security reasons.
Syrian state TV on Saturday morning broadcast footage of Syrian soldiers training, fighter jets soaring in the sky and tanks firing at unseen targets, all to the backdrop of martial music. The potential U.S. military strike dominated the station's morning talk shows.
Obama met with his national security aides at the White House on Friday and then with diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he has not yet made a final decision on punitive strikes.
But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that action was imminent. That impression was heightened both by sharply worded remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out the attack.
Obama long has been wary of U.S. military involvement in Syria's civil war, as he has been with tumultuous events elsewhere during the Arab Spring. In the case of Syria, his reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida-linked groups.
Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a "red line" that Assad should not cross. Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is no sign the equipment has arrived.
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