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Iran warns against US intervention in Syria as Obama mulls options

Iran on Sunday warned the United States against crossing the so-called “red line” and intervening militarily in Syria, saying such action would have “severe consequences,” the Fars news agency reported.

“America knows the limitation of the red line of the Syrian front and any crossing of Syria’s red line will have severe consequences for the White House,” said Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, reacting to statements by Western officials regarding the possibility of military intervention in Syria.

Also on Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that the U.S. military was ready to take action against Syria.

“President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that,” Hagel told reporters in Malaysia.

“Again, we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options,” Hagel said, a day after President Barack Obama held a rare meeting with his top aides and brass to discuss Syria.

U.S. intelligence officials on Saturday sought to determine whether Syria’s government unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack on its citizens last week, and the Obama administration prepared for a possible military response by moving naval forces closer to Syria.

Obama has emphasized that quick intervention in the years-old Syrian civil war is problematic because of the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

Obama is also likely to encounter national resistance to a military intervention. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll released Saturday evening found that about 60 percent of Americans strongly oppose U.S. intervention in Syria, with only 9 percent in favor.

Obama discussed the situation in Syria by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron Saturday, the White House said. It was Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the reports this week that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by an alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, the country’s capital.

The White House said the two leaders expressed “grave concern” about the reported chemical weapons use, which both of their countries oppose.

A statement from Cameron’s office at No. 10 Downing St. said the prime minister and Obama “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community.”

“They are both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people,” a spokesperson for Cameron said.

Cameron also spoke separately with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Meanwhile, the United Nations disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday to press the Syrian government to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged chemical attacks.

Americans and the red line

The Syrian government vehemently denies the claims. It also has warned the U.S. against taking military action, saying such a step would set the Middle East ablaze.

But Obama is under mounting pressure to act following reports of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which opposition groups say killed more than 1,000 people.

Bart Janssens, operations director for Doctors Without Borders (DWB), said Saturday that hospitals in Syria had reported thousands of patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” in line with mass exposure to nerve gas. Around 3,600 patients have been treated in three hospitals, he added. Of those, 355 have reportedly died, according to DWB.

If confirmed, it would be the largest chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad’s regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world’s vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a “red line” for him.

While the Reuters/Ipsos polls shows more Americans would back intervention if the chemical attacks are established — up to 25 percent — a remaining 46 percent would still oppose it.

The poll, taken Aug. 19-23, reveals a decline in support for U.S. action since Aug. 13, when an earlier survey showed that 30 percent of Americans backed intervention if chemical weapons were used. The two polls seem to suggest that the wrenching pictures of victims and the growing conflict in Syria have only hardened the resolve of many Americans not to get involved.

Military action

Officials have said Obama will decide how to respond once the facts are known.

“In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” the White House said after Obama’s meeting, which included Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others.

Meanwhile, the United Nations disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus Saturday to press the Syrian government to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged chemical attacks.

Hagel declined Friday to discuss specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.

Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

Hagel said the U.S. is coordinating with the international community to determine “what exactly did happen” near Damascus. Hagel left little doubt that he thinks chemical weapons were used in Syria. “It appears to be what happened — use of chemical weapons,” he said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Source: Al Jazeera

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