Iran, Syria’s other key ally, also warned of “dire consequences for the White House” should the U.S. act against Syria.
The warnings came as Obama administration officials said there was “very little doubt” that President Bashar Assad’s regime had employed a chemical weapon last Wednesday, citing the reported number of victims and symptoms, and witness accounts.
President Obama met with senior security staff and U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean were reportedly ordered to move closer to Syria.
After Obama discussed the situation by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Downing Street said the two had “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both have tasked officials to examine all the options. They agreed that it is vital that the world upholds the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and deters further outrages.”
On Sunday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters traveling with him in Asia that the Pentagon was “prepared to exercise whatever option” Obama decides to employ.
Asked about possible risks entailed in even limited military action, Hagel said any action or inaction had risks and consequences, and these were being assessed.
Factors being taken into account included “the facts, what our intelligence assessment produces, law, legal issues [and] international support,” he said.The international charity Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that within a few hours last Wednesday three clinics they support had been faced with 3,600 patients needing treatment for “neurotoxic symptoms,” and that 355 people had died.
The regime denied opposition allegations that it was responsible for the incident, which occurred almost exactly one year to the day since Obama said the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be “a red line” that would “change my equation.”
The regime says it is the opposition – a disparate collection of groups ranging from units of defected soldiers to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists – that used chemical weapons in last week’s incident and earlier ones.
After several days of vacillating the regime agreed on Sunday that a U.N. team already in Syria on a pre-arranged mission could visit the location of the alleged attack, near Damascus.
Some Western leaders suspect that the delay may have been part of an attempted cover-up.
During a phone conversation Cameron and French President Francois Hollande agreed that failure to grant the inspectors immediate access “was extremely worrying and demonstrated that the regime was hiding the facts and evidence.
“We should be realistic about what they [the inspectors] will be able to achieve and that, following continued shelling in recent days, any hard evidence is likely to have been corrupted,” Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a separate phone conversation Sunday.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry repeated its earlier suggestions that the use of chemical agents in Syria could have been a “provocation” staged by the anti-Assad rebels.
“All of this makes one recall the events that happened 10 years ago, when, using false information about Iraqis having weapons of mass destructions, the U.S. bypassed the United Nations and started a scheme whose consequences are well known to everyone,” it said.
“Once again we call not to repeat past mistakes, not to allow actions that contradict international law,” the statement added.
“Any unilateral military action bypassing the United Nations will ... lead to further escalation and will affect the already explosive situation in the Middle East in the most devastating way.”
Russia insists that all decisions must go through the U.N. Security Council, where it and China have used their veto power three times to kill resolutions on Syria during the civil war that erupted two and a half years ago.
Last week the divided Security Council was not even able to agree on a mildly condemnatory statement in response to the alleged chemical attack.
The chances of the council finding agreement on a meaningful Syria resolution are slim.
In March 2011 the council passed a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya and “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Russia contends to this day that the subsequent NATO operation exceeded the mandate, and has repeatedly cited the Libya case when Syria is discussed.
Russia and the U.S. have been trying for months to get the regime and rebels to attend an international conference in Geneva to map out a political transition for Syria.
While Russia has been Assad’s main defender in the international community, Iran has been his closest ally on the ground, providing weaponry and troops to bolster the Syrian forces.
The deputy chief of staff for the Iranian army, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, on Sunday borrowed Obama’s “red line” terminology in his warning for the U.S. not to intervene in Syria.
“The U.S. knows Syria’s red line and crossing over this line will have dire consequences for the White House,” the Fars news agency quoted him as saying.
Jazayeri attributed recent developments to the Assad regime’s military successes against the opposition rebels, which he described as accomplices of the U.S. and “Zionist regime.”
“Those who add fuel to this fire will not be immune from the nations’ revenge,” he added.
Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, told a Lebanese television station that any U.S. intervention would have implications for the entire region.
“The basic repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East,” he warned.