(Recasts with strikes planned within days, U.S. "ready to go")
* Envoys tell rebels West will strike "in days" -sources
* Obama seeks "accountability" for "moral obscenity"
* New UN tests put off; US already blames Assad for gas
* Syrian govt says would hit back, warns against attack
* Russia opposes strikes, China recalls Iraq errors
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Erika Solomon
AMMAN/BEIRUT, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Western powers could attack
Syria within days, envoys from the United States and its allies
told rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, sources who
attended the meeting told Reuters on Tuesday.
U.S. forces in the region are "ready to go", Defense
Secretary Chuck Hagel said, as Washington and its European and
Middle Eastern partners honed plans to punish Assad for a major
poison gas attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians.
Several sources who attended a meeting in Istanbul on Monday
between Syrian opposition leaders and diplomats from Washington
and other governments told Reuters that the rebels were told to
expect military action and to get ready to negotiate a peace.
"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, and that they should still
prepare for peace talks at Geneva," one of the sources said.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met
envoys from 11 states in the Friends of Syria group, including
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, at an Istanbul hotel.
United Nations chemical weapons investigators, who finally
crossed the frontline to take samples on Monday, put off a
second trip to rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. But Washington
said it already held Assad responsible for a "moral obscenity"
and President Barack Obama would hold him to account for it.
However, with Russian and Chinese opposition complicating
efforts to satisfy international law - and Western voters wary
of new, far-off wars - Western leaders may not pull the trigger
just yet. British Prime Minister David Cameron called parliament
back from its summer recess for a session on Syria on Thursday.
He and Obama, as well as French President Francois Hollande,
face tough questions about how an intervention, likely to be
limited to air strikes, will end - and whether they risk handing
power to anti-Western Islamist rebels if Assad is overthrown.
In an indication of support from Arab states that may help
Western powers argue the case for war against U.N. vetoes from
Moscow and Beijing, the Arab League issued a statement holding
Assad's government fully responsible for the chemical attack.
U.S. FORCES READY
Asked if U.S. forces were ready to strike Syria just "like
that", Hagel told the BBC: "We are ready to go, like that."
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and
comply with whatever option the president wishes to take."
Top generals from the United States and European and Middle
Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war.
Hagel said the United States would have intelligence to
present "very shortly" about last week's mass poisoning. But he
noted after calls with his British and French counterparts that
there was little doubt among U.S. allies that "the most base ...
international humanitarian standard was violated".
Turkey, Syria's neighbour and part of the U.S.-led NATO
military pact, called it a "crime against humanity" that
demanded international reaction.
The Syrian government, which denies using gas or obstructing
the U.N. inspectors, said it would press on with its offensive
against rebels around the capital.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said U.S. strikes would
help al Qaeda allies but called Western leaders "delusional" if
they hoped to help the rebels reach a balance of power in Syria.
In Britain, whose forces have supported the U.S. military in
a succession of wars, Cameron called for an appropriate level of
retribution for using chemical weapons.
"Our forces are making contingency plans," a spokesman told
reporters. London would make a "proportionate response".
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said:
"President Obama believes there must be accountability for those
who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the
world's most vulnerable people ... What we saw in Syria last
week should shock the conscience of the world.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of
women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons
is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.
"And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have
manufactured, it is undeniable."
How an intervention, likely to be limited to air strikes,
would affect the course of Syria's two and half year old civil
war is far from clear. The conflict is largely at a stalemate.
Turmoil in Egypt, whose 2011 uprising inspired Syrians to
rebel, has underlined the unpredictability of revolutions. And
the presence of Islamist militants, including allies of al Qaeda
in the Syrian rebel ranks, has given Western leaders pause. They
have held back so far from helping Assad's opponents to victory.
Russia, a major arms supplier to Assad, has said rebels may
have released the gas and warned against attacking Syria. Deputy
Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov criticised Washington for
cancelling bilateral talks on Syria that were set for Wednesday.
"Working out the political parameters for a resolution in
Syria would be exceptionally useful now, when the threat of
force hangs over this country," Gatilov wrote on Twitter.
The Syrian conflict has split the Middle East along
sectarian lines. Shi'ite Muslim Iran has supported Assad and his
Alawite minority against mainly Sunni rebels, some of them
Islamists, who have backing from Gulf Arab states.
In Tehran, a foreign ministry spokesman said: "We want to
strongly warn against any military attack in Syria. There will
definitely be perilous consequences for the region.
"These complications and consequences will not be restricted
to Syria. It will engulf the whole region."
Syrian foreign minister Moualem, who insisted the government
was trying to help the U.N. inspection team, told a news
conference in Damascus that Syria would hit back if attacked.
"We have means of defending ourselves, and we will surprise
them with these if necessary," he said. "If we face aggression,
we will defend ourselves. We will not hesitate to use any means
available. But I will not specify what those would be."
Assad's forces made little or no response to three attacks
by Israeli aircraft earlier this year which Israeli officials
said disrupted arms flowing from Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
China, which has joined Moscow in vetoing measures against
Assad in the U.N. Security Council, is also sceptical of Western
use of force to interfere with what it sees as the internal
affairs of other countries.
Beijing's official news agency ran a commentary on Tuesday
recalling the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on the grounds
that it possessed banned weapons - which were never found.
"The recent flurry of consultations between Washington and
its allies indicates that they have put the arrow on the
bowstring and would shoot even without a U.N. mandate," the
Xinhua agency said. "That would be irresponsible and dangerous."
The continued presence of United Nations experts in Damascus
may be a factor holding back international military action.
A U.N. statement said the investigators had put off a second
visit to the affected areas until Wednesday to prepare better.
Some residents of the capital are getting anxious.
"I've always been a supporter of foreign intervention but
now that it seems like a reality, I've been worrying that my
family could be hurt or killed because they live near a military
installation," said one woman, Zaina, who opposes Assad.
"I'm afraid of a military strike now."
But another woman who supports the president but did not
want her name published said she refused to let herself worry:
"Bombing, kidnapping, killing - we face it every day
already," she told Reuters.
"If it brings an end to this faster, frankly I'd welcome it.
But honestly I don't really believe the Americans will do it."
The Washington Post cited senior U.S. officials as saying an
attack would probably last no more than two days and see cruise
missiles launched from ships - or, possibly, aircraft - striking
military targets not directly linked to chemical weapons.
Opposition activists have said at least 500 people and
possibly twice that many were killed by rockets laden with
poison, possibly the nerve gas sarin or something similar. If
so, it was the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam
Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and William Maclean in
Beirut, Phil Stewart in Bandar Seri Begawan, Andrew Osborn in
London, John Irish in Paris, Timothy Heritage in Moscow, Ben
Blanchard in Beijing, Seda Sezer and Daren Butler in Istanbul,
Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Lesley Wroughton, Steve Holland and
Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald;
Editing by Will Waterman)
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