United Nations Weapons Inspectors Leave Syria as US Prepares for Possible Attack
(DAMASCUS, Syria) -- Hours after President Obama announced that the U.S. was considering "limited, narrow" military action against Syria, the U.N. team of chemical weapons inspectors left the country, raising the prospect of a possible attack that could come as early as Saturday night.
But even with U.N. experts safely out of the country, the exact timing of a U.S. strike remains uncertain.
The U.N. convoy was seen leaving the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, where they have been staying, and later arrived in neighboring Lebanon.
The U.N.'s top disarmament official, Angela Kane is expected to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon today on the investigation, but it could take two weeks before final results are made public.
After four days of field visits, the U.N. team which includes experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will send blood and urine samples to European labs for analysis.
But more than a week after the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21, the U.S. appears ready to move ahead with or without broad international support.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned case for punishing Syria, stating that a chemical attack by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.
"Instead of being tucked safely in their beds," there were "rows and rows" of dead children, Kerry said speaking at press conference in Washington.
"If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will," Kerry said.
In yet another sign that military action may be imminent, Kerry made phone calls on Friday to his counterparts in Europe and the Gulf, as well as the head of the Arab League.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected the American evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons, calling the suggestion "utter nonsense."
"While the Syrian army is on the offensive, saying that it is the Syrian government that used chemical weapons is utter nonsense," Putin told journalists in Vladivostok, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
He urged the United States to present its evidence to the UN Security Council and cautioned President Obama about the consequences of getting involved.
"I would like to address Obama as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate: before using force in Syria, it would be good to think about future casualties," he said.
Meanwhile, Syrians are bracing for the worst. In many parts of Damascus, normal life has largely continued amid the constant din of shelling in the suburbs, but the prospect of a U.S. military strike has ushered in a widespread sense of unease.
"We are not afraid of death any more, we are awaiting it," Amal, a Damascus resident told the BBC. "We just need an end to all of this," she added. Journalists on the ground in the capital report the city is tense but not panicked; cafes and shops are still open and many Damascus residents are stocking up on staples.
Citing Syrian security sources, Al Mayadeen, the Lebanese TV station affiliated with the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and with close ties to the Assad regime reports that the Syrian government is expecting an attack at any moment. A Syrian security official told Agence France-Press Saturday morning that they are also "ready to retaliate at any moment."
As the government awaits a U.S. strike, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its affiliates are standing by for the regime to lash out following a strike.
Members of the opposition who spoke with ABC News largely believe a U.S. strike would be wider-ranging than the Obama administration has described.
The nature of the U.S. strike will determine the government's reaction and the opposition's next move.
According to opposition sources, FSA commanders in northern Syria have told their fighters that the regime will immediately start attacking rebel-controlled positions.
The same commanders also advise the chaos will provide a good opportunity to cut off supply lines, target supply lines and capture supplies.
But regardless of the regime's response, both the FSA and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) across the southern border expect Hezbollah to respond in some form.
The FSA is ready to defend against on onslaught of militants on the ground, and the IDF has reinforced its missile defenses in the north.
On Friday, the IDF deployed an Iron Dome battery in the Tel Aviv area facing north. Iron Dome batteries were also deployed in Haifa, Ashkelon, and Eilat and additional batteries are ready to be moved as needed, according to Israeli media. Last week, Israel ordered a limited call-up of reserve troops.
But even as the IDF takes precautionary steps and nervous Israelis wait in long lines for free gas masks, there is no widespread panic in Israel.
The newspaper Israel Hayom released a poll this week that found two-thirds of Israeli Jews are in favor of a military intervention in Syria, but most also expected a retaliation against Israel.
Seeking to reassure Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "There is no reason to change daily routines."
He added, "we are prepared for any scenario."
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