A woman looks at a gas mask kit at a distribution centre in Jerusalem yesterday. Thousands of Israelis are lining up to pick up gas masks as expectations grow for a US-led military strike against Syria.
WASHINGTON: The US hinted yesterday that it could act alone to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack, following hesitation by its closest ally Britain and a deadlock at the UN, even as UN weapons inspectors have been ordered to leave Syria early amid mounting anticipation of US-led strikes.
As the five permanent members of the Security Council last night held a second emergency meeting in two days, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, asked the 20-strong inspection team to leave Damascus tomorrow, a day ahead of schedule. Ban also announced that the team would report to him immediately on departure, raising the possibility that the UN could issue an interim report on the August 21 chemical attacks that left about 1,300 people dead.
National security heavy-hitters, including the secretaries of state and defence, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, planned to brief top lawmakers on possible responses to the attack in a Damascus suburb last week.
US President Barack Obama, who came to power criticising his predecessor George W Bush’s go-it-alone approach on foreign policy, was confronted with a choice over whether to wait for allies or launch unilateral action.
The White House said while Obama prized the UN and close allies, his first duty was to US national security he sees threatened by the Syrian attack. “The president’s chief accountability is to the American people he was elected to protect,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The comments came as Britain struggles for a political consensus over Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to join expected US-led action. The political fracas in London sparked speculation that a timetable for action, which observers had believed could see air strikes within days, could slip.
But the State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said: “We make our own decisions in our own timeline.”
The Obama administration also hinted that unlike Britain, it did not see the need to wait for a report by UN inspectors It reasons that since the panel’s mandate is merely to establish an attack happened, and not to apportion blame, its findings are moot.
Obama sees perils to US national security in the belief that Syria shattered international norms by using chemical weapons, and that US interests and regional allies could be threatened next. Obama aides stress they envisage only “limited” punitive action and dismiss comparisons with the US invasion of Iraq, which the president built his political career on opposing.
Sources have acknowledged it is possible the US could go ahead with an attack without Britain, possibly with France, where President Francois Hollande — another proponent of punitive action — is not constrained by a parliamentary system.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad vowed to defend Syria as the military build-up continued in the Mediterranean.
The US said it deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean while Russia was reportedly sending in two warships and Britain dispatched fighter jets to Cyprus.