Preparations for a possible Western military intervention in Syria continued on Thursday, as a United Nations team was investigating allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime had unleashed chemical weapons against the civilian population.
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11:44 P.M. As the world argues over how to prevent more civilian deaths in Syria, UNESCO warned that a rich cultural heritage was being devastated by the conflict now in its third year. Clashes have damaged historical sites and buildings throughout the country, from Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque to the Crac des Chevaliers castle dating from the 13th century Crusades. But the most irreversible damage comes from the illegal looting of artifacts from archaeological sites for export, said the UN cultural arm's assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin. (Reuters)
11:13 P.M. A meeting of the UN Security Council's permanent members ends quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria's crisis. (AP)
10:23 P.M. The U.N. Security Council's permanent members are meeting again to discuss Syria's crisis, after a meeting on Wednesday left the council bitterly divided. (AP)
10:12 P.M. President Barack Obama called Speaker of the House John Boehner by telephone to discuss his deliberations on Syria, a spokesman for Boehner said, adding that more consultation with Congress and the U.S. public was needed. The two discussed issues that Boehner raised in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, including the legal justification for any military strike, precedents a strike might set and the objectives and strategy for any action, he said. "Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement. (Reuters)
10:00 P.M. European leaders are throwing their weight behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, who have urged a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, whereby the United Nations Security Council would vote on the matter after UN inspectors leave Syria and submit their conclusions, the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung reports. (Ofer Aderet)
9:38 P.M. President Bashar Assad's forces have removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect the weapons from a Western attack, opposition sources said on Thursday. The move from the position in the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains, one of Syria's most heavily militarized districts, appears part of a precautionary but limited redeployment of armaments in areas of central Syria still held by Assad's forces, diplomats based in the Middle East told Reuters. (Reuters)
Syria live blog
9:23 P.M. State Department spokeswoman says nobody is talking about an 'Iraq-style intervention' when it comes to Syria. (Haaretz)
9:21 P.M. The United States would provide its own legal justification for an eventual response to chemical weapons use in Syria if necessary once President Barack Obama decides how to proceed, the White House said on Thursday. "When the president reaches a determination about the appropriate response ... and a legal justification is required to substantiate or to back up that decision, we'll produce one on our own," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a briefing. (Reuters)
9:15 P.M. "The State of Israel is prepared, and there is no reason to change daily routine, but if someone tries to harm Israeli citizens – the IDF will respond forcibly," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday at a security meeting in the Tel Aviv. The prime minister added that despite the fact that Syria is not expected to attack Israel, IDF decided to deploy additional Iron Dome batteries. (Army Radio)
8:36 P.M. Israel’s army chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz says the military is prepared for any scenario, referring to the U.S. threat to attack Syria. Gantz says challenging days are ahead, but also that the Israel Defense Forces is ready to respond if Israel is attacked. “We have no part in the events that are unfolding around us, but every leader knows that if fire is directed at Israel, it would be at a great cost.” He adds that the Israeli public should maintain its daily routine, as well as preparations to the upcoming holidays. (Gili Cohen)
8:30 P.M. Beijing opposes any external military intervention, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says, while urging restraint by all sides until UN inspectors in Syria have investigated the suspected use of chemical weapons. (DPA)
8:15 P.M. Air France modifies the timing of one of its two daily return flights between Paris and Beirut. (Reuters)
8:11 P.M. Cyprus Airways cancels its evening flight from Larnaca to the Lebanese capital Beirut, citing the situation in Syria. (Reuters)
7:58 P.M. Israel Postal Company, which operates gas mask distribution centers across Israel, reports that demand for gas masks has increased fivefold in recent days. On Thursday alone, it says, more than 10,000 gas masks were collected and its call center received thousands of calls. (Gili Cohen)
7:53 P.M. Canada is convinced a military action against Syria is needed after reports of chemical weapons use, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says. "This is a very big risk and we do support our allies who are contemplating forceful action to deal with this," he said. "That said, at the present time the government of Canada has no plans, we have no plans of our own, to have a Canadian military mission." (Reuters)
7:45 P.M. Denmark is ready to politically support a military strike against Syria even without authorization from the UN Security Council. Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt says that "Denmark is ready to consider alternative options" in case the UN track fails, but adds that his country had not been asked to join the military effort. Denmark has backed military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. (AP)
7:26 P.M. The five permanent UN Security Council members will meet again on Thursday to discuss an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria last week, UN diplomats say. One source said the meeting was called by Russia. The meeting will take place at 9:30 P.M. (6:30 P.M. GMT). The delegations of Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. held an inconclusive meeting on Wednesday on a draft UN Security Council resolution that would authorize "all necessary force" in response to the alleged gas attack. (Reuters)
7:00 P.M. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour warns a military action against the Syrian regime would escalate tensions in Lebanon and may dramatically increase the number of Syria refugees. "A limited or extended military strike by one or more countries against Syria is a serious threat to the security and stability of the region," said Mansour, “…military action against any country, particularly an Arab state, which is not rooted in international legitimacy and the [UN] Security Council, is a direct aggression against this state.”
He says the only solution to the Syria crisis is political. "We have the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq… Iraq is still suffering from the chaos and instability and lack of security," he says. Mansour rejects accusations that the Syrian regime is behind last week’s suspected chemical attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people, saying there had to be an investigation before accusations are leveled. (AP)
6:20 P.M. The U.S. is sending a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean, French news agency AFP reports, quoting a defense official speaking under a condition of anonymity. Earlier on Thursday it was reported (11:50 A.M.) that Russia is sending two warships to the region.
According to the report, the Navy’s USS Stout, a guided-missile destroyer, was sent to relieve the USS Mahan, but the official says it is possible that the two ships will remain in place for now. Also deployed in the region are the USS Ramage, the USS Barry and the USS Gravely. (Haaretz)
5:46 P.M. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are among senior U.S. officials who will participate in a briefing on Thursday for members of Congress about Syria, according to a congressional aide who was informed by the White House. Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will also participate in the briefing to be held via conference call at 1 AM (6 P.M. EDT, 10 P.M. GMT). (Reuters)
5:35 P.M. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta says Italy would not join any military operation against Damascus without authorization from the UN Security Council, but adds that his country joins international condemnation of Assad. "The international community has to respond strongly to Assad and his regime and to the horrors which have been committed," he told Italy's RAI state radio. (Reuters)
5:30 P.M. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi calls for mobilizing national resources to preserve essential state services in the case of a military attack. Al-Halqi says the steps are necessary "to overcome any emergency situation and prevent enemies from disrupting state services, especially electricity, drinking water, communications, food and oil," according to a statement from Syria's SANA state news agency. "There is a strategic supply of all materials, and the bakeries are continuing to operate around the clock to meet citizens' needs," he says.
5:04 P.M. British Prime Minister David Cameron rules out British involvement in military action against Syria should there be "overwhelming" opposition in the UN Security Council. "It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the Security Council," he told parliament, when asked if Britain would press ahead with action despite strong opposition at the UN. (Reuters)
4:40 P.M. Iranian President Hassan Rohani says his country will press forward with efforts to ward off military action by the U.S. and its allies against Syria, Iranian state TV reports. During a phone conversation with Putin, Rohani said "military action will bring great costs for the region" and "it is necessary to apply all efforts to prevent it."
Rohani said Iran and Russia would work in "extensive cooperation" to prevent an attack on Syria. He also called such military action an "open violation" of international laws. "Western countries have found some excuse to prepare the ground to weaken the stance of Syria in further talks" after the Syrian government has won the upper hand in confronting rebels, he said. "Syria has a strategic and sensitive situation, and any sort of military invasion would lead to instability in the entire Middle East.” (AP)
4: 10 P.M. Russia demands that UN inspectors in Syria visit more sites of alleged chemical weapons attacks. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich says that apart from the site of last week's attack outside Damascus the inspectors should visit three others, including Khan al-Asal near Aleppo, where at least 25 people died in March. If this requires more time, the inspectors should stay in Syria longer, he says. (DPA)
4:00 P.M. Escalation in Syria will worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross says. "Further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense… In large parts of rural Damascus for example, people are dying because they lack medical supplies and because there are not enough medical personnel to attend to them,” the ICRC says in a statement.
3:52 P.M. Egypt strongly opposes military action against Syria. In a statement, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy says that Egypt condemns chemical weapons use by any side in Syria's civil war and is asking the international community to bring perpetrators to justice after a UN team investigating submits findings. (AP)
3:32 P.M. The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande decides to do so, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says. "The Armed Forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point." Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch any military action that lasts less than four months. (AP)
3:12 P.M. Britain's government says the legal conditions have been clearly met for taking action against Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron's office released two documents Thursday meant to bolster the case that chemical weapons were used by Syria. In addition to the legal summary, Downing Street released the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment that concludes that there is evidence showing a chemical attack took place last week on a Damascus suburb, and that it is ‘highly likely’ that the Syrian regime was behind it.
In a letter sent to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, committee head Jon Day also wrote writes that they believe Assad used chemical weapons on 14 occasions since 2012. “This judgment was made with the highest possible level of certainty following an exhaustive review… We think that there have been other attacks although we do not have the same degree of confidence in the evidence. A clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established,” the letter says. (Haaretz and AP)
3:06 P.M. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande agree there must be a reaction the gas attack in Syria. "They hope for a quick end to the UN's investigation mission and an immediate report to the UN Security Council so that it can fulfill its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime," Merkel’s spokesman said in a statement. (Reuters)
3:00 P.M. The U.S. has no military option that would remove Assad from power and would bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, Israel’s former MI chief Amos Yadlin says. "In light of the understanding that inaction is the worst strategy, immoral, and harms American interests, there is a need to examine what is 'the best worst strategy,'" Yadlin and Avner Golov stated in an analysis published for the Institute for National Security Studies.
2:45 P.M. Israel Police chief Yohanan Danino asks the public not the change holiday plans due to the tensions on the Syrian border. “I want to tell the people of Israel that we are prepared… We will do everything that is necessary to keep the daily routine and the safety of the people. You can count on us.” Danino also asked those waiting in line at gas mask distribution centers across Israel to remain calm. (Haaretz)
2:33 P.M. Assad says that Syria would defend itself against any aggression. "The threats of direct aggression against Syria will only increase our commitment to our deep-rooted principles and the independent will of our people. Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression," state television quotes Assad as telling a delegation of Yemeni politicians. (Reuters)
2:28 P.M. Pope and King of Jordan Abdullah agree in a meeting that a dialogue among Syrians, with international community backing, is the ‘only option’ to end conflict. (Reuters)
2:05 P.M. Anti-Assad activists contacted by Skype say they were told by residents that the team was touring the suburb of Zamalka east of Damascus. The UN team did not issue a statement about its plans. (AP)
12:30 P.M. Britain is sending six RAF Typhoon jets to Cyprus, 200 km from the Syrian coast, as a defensive measure. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said the air-to-air interceptor jets would be deployed to the British Akrotiri base in Cyprus on Thursday.
"This is purely a prudent and precautionary measure to ensure the protection of UK interests and the defense of our Sovereign Base Areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region," the spokesman said. "This is a movement of defensive assets operating in an air-to-air role only. They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria." (Reuters)
12:20 P.M. UN inspectors will continue their investigations in Syria until Friday and plan to leave by Saturday morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, adding that he had spoken to U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday about the situation in Syria, discussing how "we can expedite the process of investigation."
"I have also expressed [my] sincere wish that this investigation team should be allowed to continue their work as mandated by the member states," Ban told reporters. (Reuters)
12:07 P.M. French President Francois Hollande says that Syria needs a political solution, but that could only happen if the international community could halt killings like last week's chemical attack and better support the opposition.
"Everything must be done for a political solution but it will only happen if the coalition is able to appear as an alternative with the necessary force, notably from its army," Hollande told reporters after meeting the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba. "We will only manage this if the international community can put a temporary stop to this escalation in violence, of which the chemical attack is just one example.” (Reuters)
11:50 P.M. Russia is sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean, Interfax news agency reports. A source in the armed forces’ general staff told is quoted as saying a missile cruiser and an anti-submarine ship would arrive in the coming days because of the "well-known situation" - a clear reference to the conflict in Syria. The navy later denied the deployment was linked to events in Syria and said it was part of a long-planned rotation of its ships in the Mediterranean. (Reuters)
11:45 A.M. Overload is reported at the single gas mask distribution center in Haifa, which serves all residents of northern Israel. All distribution centers around the country, many of which usually close in the afternoon, will remain open until 7 P.M. until further notice. (Eli Ashkenazi)
3:20 A.M. The UN Security Council's five permanent members ended a meeting Wednesday fiercely divided over a British-proposed resolution to authorize the use of military force to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, with Russia and China firmly opposed. The meeting ended with no indication of whether a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons would ever be put to a Security Council vote. U.S. officials in Washington and the United Nations indicated the resolution appeared doomed and any action against Syria would have to occur without the backing of the Security Council. (AP)
1:10 A.M. Obama confirms in an interview on PBS that he "has not made a decision," regarding a military strike in Syria. The U.S. President says he has been given options from the military, and has had "extensive discussions with the national security team."
Obama adds that the U.S. does not believe that the Syrian opposition possessed chemical weapons, and has concluded that the Syrian government indeed carried out the chemical attacks. (Reuters)
12:17 A.M. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner urges Obama to make the case personally to Congress and the American people for potential military action in Syria. In a letter to Obama that was released to the media, Boehner said Obama must explain the legal basis for any use of force in Syria and the "intended effect of the potential military strikes." (Reuters)
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