By Albert Aji and Ryan Lucas
DAMASCUS, SYRIA: Fears of a possible U.S. strike against Syria’s regime over an alleged chemical weapons attack rippled across the region Wednesday, as about 6,000 Syrians fled to neighboring Lebanon in a 24-hour period and Israelis scrambled for gas masks in case Damascus retaliates against them.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon pleaded for more time for diplomacy and to allow U.N. investigators to complete their work. The experts, wearing flak jackets and helmets, collected blood and urine samples from victims during a visit to at least one of the areas hit in last week’s attack.
Seven days after chemical weapons were purportedly unleashed on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, momentum grew toward Western military action against President Bashar Assad’s regime. At the same time, Syria’s chief allies, Russia and Iran, warned of dire consequences for the region if any armed intervention is undertaken.
U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Assad’s government was behind the Aug. 21 attack that Doctors Without Borders says killed at least 355 people. The White House says it’s planning a possible military response while seeking support from international partners.
The United States has not presented concrete proof of Syrian regime involvement in the attack, and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations, although the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said evidence suggests some kind of “substance” was used that killed hundreds.
Two senior Obama administration officials said U.S. intelligence agencies are drawing up a report laying out the evidence against Assad’s government. The classified version would be sent to key members of Congress and a declassified version would be made public.
One of the officials said the administration is considering more than a single set of military strikes and “the options are not limited just to one day” of assault.
“If there is action taken, it must be clearly defined what the objective is and why” and based on “clear facts,” the senior administration official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly.
President Barack Obama is weighing a limited response that focuses on punishing the Syrian government for violating international agreements that bar the use of chemical weapons. Any U.S. military action, officials say, would not be aimed at toppling the Assad regime or vastly altering the course of Syria’s civil war, which has already claimed 100,000 dead.
As the U.S., France and Britain push for military action, the U.N. secretary-general urged restraint to give U.N. inspectors time to finish their investigation, which began Monday.
“Let them conclude ... their work for four days and then we will have to analyze scientifically” their findings and send a report to the U.N. Security Council, Ban said. The U.N. said the analysis would be done “as quickly as possible.”
Regime says it’s innocent
Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, said he sent Ban a letter demanding that the inspectors extend their investigation to what he described as three chemical weapons attacks against Syrian soldiers in the Damascus suburbs. He said the attacks occurred on Aug. 22, 24, and 25, and that dozens of Syrian soldiers are currently being treated for inhaling nerve gases.
Ja’afari also blamed the rebels for any chemical weapons attack, saying “the Syrian government is innocent of these allegations.”
Ban pleaded for more time to give diplomacy another chance to end Syria’s conflict. Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution in The Hague, Netherlands, he said: “Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking.”
But with many seeing Western intervention no longer a question of if but when, there were signs of growing fears across the wider region. At least 6,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon in a 24-hour period through the main Masnaa crossing, including an estimated 4,000 on Wednesday, according to Lebanese security officials in the country’s Bekaa Valley near the border. The normal daily influx is 500 to 1,000 refugees.
Long lines of packed cars — some with suitcases strapped to roofs — were backed up at the frontier post, witnesses said. A security official said about 2,000 also crossed into Syria, but many of them said they were going in to evacuate relatives.