BEIRUT – Syria won't surrender and its defenses will "surprise" the world should the U.S. and its allies decide on military strikes, Foreign Minister Walid al- Muallem said Tuesday.
Syria is "hearing the drums of war all around us," Muallem said at a televised news conference in Damascus. The government hasn't obstructed the United Nations probe into its alleged use of chemical weapons, he said, adding that the United States may be carrying out psychological warfare.
The U.S. is vowing to hold President Bashar Assad's government liable for what it says was use of chemical weapons on civilians near Damascus last week. In the strongest language yet from a U.S. official, Secretary of State John Kerry Monday denounced the attack as a "cowardly crime" requiring a response. Muallem said he told Kerry that allegations the government carried out the attack are fabrications.
President Barack Obama is under growing pressure from U.S. allies and Congress to take military action against Assad in the wake of the Aug. 21 attack, which Syrian opposition groups say killed more than 1,300 people. Obama has been reluctant to involve the U.S. in Syria's two-year-old civil war.
The president hasn't decided whether to use force, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.
"There's very little doubt in our minds" that Assad's forces are responsible for the chemical attacks, Carney said.
"The question is not whether the U.S. will respond, but how it will respond," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said on a conference call with reporters Monday.
Mideastern financial markets slumped on the prospect that international intervention may escalate the conflict. Dubai's stock index plunged the most since 2009 and four Gulf stock indexes were among the world's 10 worst performers Tuesday. Israel's shekel posted the biggest two-day loss in more than three months.
Brent crude jumped 1.9 percent to $112.79 a barrel. The Mideast accounted for 35 percent of global crude output in the first quarter of 2013, according to the International Energy Agency.
Kerry didn't say whether the U.S. would seek a mandate from the U.N. for potential responses. Russia, an ally of Syria that has a veto on the U.N. Security Council, has blocked previous U.N. action against Syria. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that a response would be legal even without the full backing of the Security Council.
Military intervention without Security Council approval would be "a gross violation of international law," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Monday. Russia has urged the U.S. to "show common sense," the country's Foreign Ministry said on its website Tuesday.
Iran, another Syrian ally, warned that a military strike against Syria will have "great consequences for the region," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday.
U.N. inspectors braved sniper fire Monday to collect evidence in the area of the attack, and to interview survivors, witnesses and doctors, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon. The continuation of the probe will be delayed for a day, the U.N. said.
Initial review of the site suggests that Assad didn't order the attack and that a brigade over which he may have lost control instead launched the strike, according to a U.N. official who asked not to be identified discussing the inquiry. Kerry said Monday the U.N. scientists are charged only with determining whether chemical arms were deployed, not who was responsible.
Obama said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line" regarding U.S. policy toward Syria.
Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. is most likely to launch missile strikes on Syrian chemical weapons-related targets while trying not to be dragged into the civil war. More than 100,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011 and there are more than 2 million Syrian refugees, according to UN estimates.
Talev reported from Washington. Contributors: Robert Hutton in London, Donna Abu-Nasr, Ladane Nasseri and Anthony DiPaola in Dubai, Sangwon Yoon, David Lerman and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington and Henry Meyer in Moscow.