- (Photo: Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced that American forces are ready for an attack on Syria and are waiting for President Barack Obama's orders, though Russia has warned that such actions would lead to "catastrophic consequences" for the region.
"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel told BBC News.
Hundreds of people lost their lives last week in Syria, which has been ripped apart by a civil war that began over two years ago, with reports claiming that President Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons on civilians, though the government has denied the claims and warned Western powers to stay out.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said that he "utterly and completely" rejects the claims that the government used chemical weapons, which goes against an announcement on Monday by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who revealed that UN inspectors were investigating the "undeniable" use of chemical weapons, which he labeled a "moral obscenity."
"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said. "It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. 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."
Over 100,000 people have lost their lives in the two-year conflict, UN statistics say, and 1.9 million have left the country as refugees.
The Obama administration has said it is monitoring the situation closely, and is set to decide on a course of action. BBC noted that the UK Parliament is also set to be recalled on Thursday to discuss a response.
Kerry added on Monday: "Make no mistake, 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."
Russia and China have warned, however, that a military strike might further destabilize the region.
"Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa," said Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Chinese news agency Xinhua has also apparently said that Western powers are "rushing to conclusions" about who might have used chemical weapons. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has told UK Prime Minister David Cameron that there is "no evidence yet" that the Syria government is to blame.
Hagel argued, however, that it looks "pretty clear" that despite the government's denial, chemical weapons were used in Syria.
"I think the intelligence will conclude that it wasn't the rebels who used it, and there'll probably be pretty good intelligence to show is that the Syria government was responsible. But we'll wait and determine what the facts and the intelligence bear out," he added.