DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Syria’s foreign minister struck a defiant tone Tuesday amid growing international calls for a military response to the country’s suspected use of chemical weapons, denying his nation is hindering inspectors and warning Western leaders against an attack.
“Syria is not easy to swallow,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday at a news conference. “We have the materials to defend ourselves. We will surprise others.”
Days after the United States moved warships armed with cruise missiles into the region, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday that forces were ready to carry out a strike if ordered.
“The options are there, the United States Department of Defense is ready to carry out those options,” Hagel told BBC
“We are ready to go, like that,” he said, referring to the military’s capability to carry out a strike immediately.
A senior Defense Department official told CNN that any strike could be completed “within several days.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the United States of trying to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention” in Syria.
In a statement, the ministry complained that Washington was attempting to bypass the U.N. Security Council to take action on the reported chemical attack.
Russia is an ally of Syria’s president and has a permanent seat on the council. It is capable of blocking measures against his government that are proposed to the U.N. body.
Moscow also bemoaned the postponement by the United States of a meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday in The Hague, where top diplomats from both countries had planned to discuss the war in Syria.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov has said that there is no proof yet that the Syrian government was involved in last week’s reported attack. His office has compared the Western allegations against Syria to the claims that Iraq was hoarding weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003 — claims that fell apart once American troops began searching for them.
As U.S. officials turned up the volume on a military response, a NATO spokesman said the military alliance was “closely monitoring developments” and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office recalled lawmakers from their summer vacation Tuesday to vote on his own country’s response to the alleged chemical attack.
His office also said the country’s military was making contingency plans for a Syrian operation, joining U.S. officials who said Monday that President Barack Obama’s administration was evaluating options for a military response to the suspected use of chemical agents against the Syrian rebels. Obama has yet to decide how to respond, the defense official said Tuesday.
Rebel officials say more than 1,300 people — including many children — died in such an attack. Syrian officials blame rebels for the deaths.
An intelligence report detailing evidence of the alleged attack could be released as early as Tuesday, a U.S. official told CNN. The report will include forensic evidence and intercepted communications among Syrian military commanders, the official said.
While stopping short of directly accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government of a massacre, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday called chemical weapons use a “moral obscenity” and said Syrian actions are “not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”
“We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said that Syria was “systemically destroying evidence” of last week’s attack by continuing to shell the area. And he said sniper fire Monday that damaged a vehicle being driven by a team of United Nations weapons inspectors “only further weakens the regime’s credibility.”
Moallem rejected the accusations.
“They said the Syrian forces are the ones who used this weapon,” he said. “And I categorically denied this matter. I said there is no country in the world that uses weapons of mass destruction against its people. If anybody who has got any evidence, who can accuse our forces that they used this kind of weapon, I dare them to bring it out to the public.”
He said rebel forces were to blame for security concerns near the suspected chemical sites and argued Western leaders were using claims of chemical weapons use as an excuse to go after the Assad regime.
“We all hear the drums of war,” he said. “They want to attack Syria. I believe to use chemical weapons as a pretext is not right.”
U.N. inspections delayedU.N. inspectors had been expected Tuesday to head to Ghouta to look for evidence of chemical weapons use. But Moallem said that Tuesday’s planned trip to the outskirts of Damascus had been delayed until Wednesday because of security concerns.
He blamed rebel forces for failing to guarantee the safety of the U.N. team, and denied that the government was delaying the inspections amid continued shelling of the site. Video posted to YouTube on Tuesday purported to show the area being shelled.
CNN could not verify the authenticity of the video.
The U.N. inspection team said in a statement that it had decided to postpone its work by one day “in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.”
On Monday, inspectors visited the town of Moadamiyet al-Sham, despite a close call with snipers that damaged one of their vehicles. There also was an explosion near the inspection site, the United Nations said. There were no reports of injuries.
The visit came days after U.N. inspectors requested access to the site. Inspectors feared possible evidence of chemical weapons had already dissipated. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the team visited hospitals; interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors; and collected samples.
Videos posted on social media by Syrian activists showed inspectors who appeared to be examining the area accompanied by doctors.
Speaking from Seoul, South Korea, Ban said he has directed the group to register a “strong complaint” to government and opposition forces to make sure the team’s safety is guaranteed after Monday’s incident.
The inspectors are trying to get to the bottom of conflicting accounts by Syria’s government and rebel leaders of a chemical attack last week.
Opposition members say rockets with chemical payloads were among the ordnance that government troops unleashed at the rebel stronghold of Ghouta early Wednesday. More than 1,300 people died, most of them by gas, according to opposition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.
The opposition backed up the allegations with gruesome video of rows of dead bodies, including women and children. They had no visible wounds, and some appeared to be bloated.
But according to Syrian state-run television’s depiction of events, government forces came into contact with a gas attack Saturday in Jobar, on the edge of Damascus. Several of the soldiers were “suffocating” from exposure to gases as they entered the city, according to state TV.
“It is believed that the terrorists have used chemical weapons in the area,” Syrian TV reported, citing an anonymous source. The government uses the term “terrorists” to describe rebel forces.
Broadcast video showed a room containing gas masks, gas canisters and other paraphernalia that could be used in a gas attack. The army said it uncovered the cache in a storage facility in the area.
CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of video shown by the government or rebels.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called the West to military action Tuesday.
“Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action; shaping events or reacting to them,” he wrote in an essay published in the Times of London.
“People wince at the thought of intervention. But contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda. …”
Middle East analyst Richard Haass told CNN’s “The Lead” on Monday that while military action is needed to underscore the international taboo against chemical weapons, it must be carefully calibrated to avoid an enduring conflict.
“No one, Syria or anybody else, now and forevermore, should be able to use such weapons, much less biological or nuclear weapons, with impunity,” he said. But he said Washington should limit its intervention in the conflict, “so we don’t get enmeshed in what I think could become a quagmire.”
By Frederik Pleitgen. Hamdi Alkhshali and Ben Brumfield
CNN’s Fred Pleitgen reported from Syria. CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali reported from Atlanta and Jomana Karadsheh from Jordan. Matt Smith wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Ben Brumfield, Boriana Milanova, Chris Lawrence, Jim Acosta, Josh Levs, Joe Sterling, Elise Labott, Jill Dougherty and Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report.
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