Syrian President Bashar Assad has said his country "will defend itself against any aggression," signalling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike over a suspected poison gas attack blamed on his regime.
UN chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day on Thursday. Amateur video posted online showed UN inspectors wearing gas masks walking through a damaged building. One inspector scooped pulverised debris from the ground, placed it in a glass container and wrapped the container in a plastic bag.
The inspectors' departure from Syria on Saturday could clear the path for possible military action against the Assad regime. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Western powers to hold off on any decisions until his experts can present their findings to UN member states and the Security Council.
The suspected chemical weapons attacks took place on August 21 in suburbs of Damascus. The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has said the strikes killed 355 people. President Barack Obama said he has not decided how the US will respond. However, he signalled that the US is moving toward a punitive strike, saying he has "concluded" that Assad's regime is behind the attacks and that there "need to be international consequences."
The US has not presented proof in public. The Syrian regime has denied a role in the attacks, alleging instead, without presenting evidence, that anti-government rebels carried them out to frame Assad.
The Syrian president struck a tough tone. "Threats to launch a direct aggression against Syria will make it more adherent to its well-established principles and sovereign decisions stemming from the will of its people, and Syria will defend itself against any aggression," Assad said . It's not clear if Assad would retaliate for any Western strikes or try to ride them out in hopes of minimising the threat to his continued rule over parts of Syria. The US has said regime change it not its objective.
Meanwhile, the possibility of a Western strike and a Syrian response has sparked anxiety among civilians in neighbouring countries. Israelis stood in long lines for government-issue gas masks. Turkey's government crisis management centre said officials had designated bunkers at seven areas along the border. And Lebanon's foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, warned that international military action against Syria would pose a "serious threat" to the security and stability of the region, particularly in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, both Mr Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were trying to shore up domestic political support for possible military action. The Obama administration was planning a teleconference briefing on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and national security committees, US officials and congressional aides said. Mr Cameron convened Parliament for an emergency meeting.
Mr Ban said the UN team is set to leave Syria on Saturday, and suggested that Western powers hold off on any decisions until the inspectors have presented their findings. "Diplomacy should be given a chance, and peace given a chance," Mr Ban said. "It's important that all the differences of opinions should be resolved through peaceful means and through dialogue."
Israel has called up reservists and deployed missile defence batteries in preparation for a possible Syrian response to an American attack. In Turkey, the government's crisis management centre said on Twitter that a team of 100 chemical weapons experts were sent to the border area, which was being screened for any signs of chemical attacks.