The United States and its allies were gearing up on Wednesday for a probable military strike against Syria that could happen as early as Thursday. , as punishment for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attacks blamed on President Bashar Assad's government.
The gathering military deployment was spurred by new intelligence that convinced U.S. President Barack Obama's top national security advisers that forces loyal to Assad had used chemical weapons and that they were actively trying to cover up evidence of it even while they shelled the site of the attack, officials told The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal reported that one crucial piece of the emerging case came from Israeli spy services, which provided the Central Intelligence Agency with intelligence from inside an elite special Syrian unit that oversees Assad's chemical weapons, Arab diplomats told the paper. The intelligence, which the CIA was able to verify, showed that certain types of chemical weapons were moved in advance to the same Damascus suburbs where the attack allegedly took place a week ago, Arab diplomats told the newspaper.
Western powers have told the Syrian opposition to expect military action against Assad's forces soon, according to sources who attended a meeting between envoys and the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul.
The latest developments as of Wednesday afternoon:
• Britain stated it would put forward a resolution to the U.N. Security Council condemning the Syrian government for the alleged chemical attack and would seek a measure "authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians" in Syria.
• Israel's government convened a meeting of the security cabinet.
• Al Arabiya reported that the Syrian Army 4th Division was evacuating its base on Mount Qasioun in northern Damascus. Bashar Assad's brother Maher commands that elite unit.
• U.N. arms experts resumed their chemical weapons probe in Syria on Wednesday.
• Russia has evacuated more than 100 citizens from Syria on two planes, which flew them from the Syrian port city of Latakia.
• Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday night that U.S. intelligence had intercepted a frantic phone call from an official in the Syrian Defense Ministry to an officer who fired artillery shells with chemical agents in them last week in eastern Damascus.
Amid a quickening drumbeat of preparations, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said American forces in the region were "ready to go" if President Barack Obama gave the order, as intelligence agencies assembled what was sure to be final confirmation of the Syrian government's culpability for Wednesday's poison gas attack near Damascus.
U.S. officials said the attack was likely to last three days. Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, told MSNBC that the strike's objective would be to "punish, deter and degrade [Syria's weapons], and that is an important military objective.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said it would "fanciful" to think that anyone other than Assad's forces was responsible for the chemical attack, which killed hundreds of people as they slept.
Obama had yet to make a final decision on the U.S. response, Carney said, but left little doubt that it would involve military action. He insisted, however, that Washington was not intent on "regime change," signaling that any military strikes would be limited and not meant to topple Assad.
The British military was also drafting plans. Prime Minister David Cameron, anxious, like Obama, not to emulate the entanglements in wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi that beset their predecessors, said any strikes would be "specific" so as not to drag the allies deeper into the Syrian civil war now in its third year.
Cameron recalled Parliament for a debate on Syria on Thursday.
U.N. chemical weapons investigators put off until Wednesday a second trip to the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, where activists say hundreds of civilians died a week ago.
While evidence of chemical warfare could bolster an argument for intervention at the United Nations in the face of likely Russian and Chinese opposition, Western leaders and the Arab League have already declared Assad guilty.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the rebel Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 countries at an Istanbul hotel, including the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. The rebel leaders proposed targets for cruise missiles and bombing.
One participant said: "The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days."
Planning appears to focus on missile or air strikes. There is little public support in Western countries for troops to invade Syria.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel said.
The precise timing of possible military action remained unclear, but it is certain to wait for an official U.S. intelligence report blaming Assad's government for the chemical attack. The findings, considered merely a formality at this point, will be released this week, U.S. officials said.
Russia, Assad's main arms supplier, opposes military action and has suggested that rebel forces may have released the poison gas. China's state news agency recalled how flawed intelligence was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Moscow and Beijing accuse Western powers of using human rights complaints, such as in Libya, to meddle in sovereign states' affairs. White House spokesman Carney insisted: "The options that we are considering are not about regime change. They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons."
Although Obama has long said Assad should step down, he is unwilling to commit to making that happen by force. Carney said it was "profoundly in the interests of the United States" to respond to the chemical weapons attack.
In Britain, Cameron told reporters: "This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict. It's about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn't stand idly by."
In France, which played a major role in Libya, President Francois Hollande said he was "ready to punish" Assad for using the chemical weapons, citing a 2005 U.N. provision for international action to protect civilians from their own governments.
In an indication of support from Arab states that may help Western powers argue the case for an attack against likely U.N. vetoes from Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding Assad's government responsible for the chemical attack.
Ahead of the possible strike, Russia began evacuating its citizens from Syria. Moscow's Emergency Situations Ministry sent an Ilyushin-76 jet to the Latakia airport with 20 tons of humanitarian aid on Tuesday. The jet was to take "180 people who have expressed a desire to leave Syria" back to Russia on Wednesday.