DAMASCUS, Syria — Global powers are working furiously to prepare for the possibility of a strike on Syria — looking at military options, holding emergency meetings and stressing the need for swift international action.
Meanwhile, those who claimed to have survived the alleged chemical weapons attack that triggered the international machinations described the horror they say ensued.
“After the chemicals, they woke us up and told us to put masks on,” a 6-year-old boy in Zamalka said.
“I told my dad I can’t breathe. My father then fainted and I fainted right after that, but we were found and taken to the emergency room.”
CNN obtained video of the boy and others who made the claims to a journalist in the area.
One man claimed he evacuated two dead bodies during the attack. “Then there was another explosion. I couldn’t breathe, I had cramps and I couldn’t see. The doctors helped me.”
The horror of the attack on civilians has jolted the world into potential action on a crisis that has lasted more than two years and killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Last week was not the first time chemical weapons are believed to have been used in the conflict. But it was by far the worst.
“Syria is now undoubtedly the most serious crisis facing the international community,” Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday.
“It does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people,” he said. The death toll could be in the hundreds, or possibly more than a thousand, he said.
“This is of course unacceptable. This is outrageous,” Brahimi said in Geneva. “This confirms how dangerous the situation in Syria is and how important for the Syrians and the international community to really develop the political will to address this issue seriously and look for solutions for it.”
After a meeting Wednesday, NATO issued a warning.
“The Syrian regime maintains custody of stockpiles of chemical weapons. Information available from a wide variety of sources points to the Syrian regime as responsible for the use of chemical weapons in these attacks. This is a clear breach of long-standing international norms and practice.
“Any use of such weapons is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered. Those responsible must be held accountable. We consider the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security,” NATO said in a statement. Some Syrians have told CNN they doubt their government used chemical weapons.
American warships armed with cruise missiles plowed the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
U.S. forces are ready, if an order to strike comes down, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC on Tuesday.
A senior Defense Department official told CNN that any strike could be completed “within several days.”
And U.S. officials are all but telling United Nations inspectors in Syria to get out of the way.
“We clearly value the U.N.’s work — we’ve said that from the beginning — when it comes to investigating chemical weapons in Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. “But we’ve reached a point now where we believe too much time has passed for the investigation to be credible and that it’s clear the security situation isn’t safe for the team in Syria.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seemed to ask for a reprieve Wednesday for the sake of the inspectors. “The team needs time to do its job,” he said from The Hague, where he visited the International Criminal Court.
He said the inspectors had already collected valuable evidence.
The United States is also considering a Jordanian request for the use of drones along its border with Syria for intelligence-gathering purposes, a senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told CNN.
Syria: ‘We are in a state of war’
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari insisted Wednesday, “We are not warmongers. We are a peaceful nation seeking stability in the area because instability would serve the Israeli interests.”
“We are in a state of war,” and preparing for the possibility of such a scenario, he said at U.N. headquarters in New York. “The Syrian government is looking for stability.”
Jaafari accused rebels of obtaining material to produce chemical weapons “from outside powers — mainly speaking, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Jaafari agreed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on one point: that the use of chemical weapons is “a moral obscenity,” he said.
U.S. officials accuse the Syrian government of carrying out the attack.
Vice President Joe Biden made clear the administration’s view, saying Tuesday that “there is no doubt who is responsible for the heinous use of chemical weapons — the Syrian regime.”
A U.S. independent intelligence report about the chemical weapons attack will come out later this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Israeli military intelligence provided intercepts among Syrian military commanders that discussed the movement of chemical weapons to the area of the attack before it happened, a diplomatic source told CNN Wednesday.
U.S. ruled out ground troops
For almost two years, President Barack Obama has avoided direct military involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war as the death toll skyrocketed to more than 100,000, according to U.N. estimates.
But Obama had warned that a chemical attack would cross a “red line.”
The White House has ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or implementing a no-fly zone to blunt al-Assad’s aerial superiority over rebels.
Obama continues to review options, Carney said Tuesday, adding that “nothing has been decided.”
Those options include peaceful diplomacy, which critics have called a “do nothing” approach.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, a former U.S. Army Ranger and current member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes that the most realistic option would be cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships at sea.
“We can have precision weapons that could be fired and keep our aircraft out of Syrian airspace and away from their anti-aircraft systems,” he said.
“The most effective targets would have command-and-control, because you could send a signal to the Syrian regime that if they don’t agree to international standards, if they don’t make it clear and make it obvious that they’re not going to use these weapons, and that we can inflict additional damage on their command-and-control,” he added.
Russia: West acts like monkey with a grenade
The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council met Wednesday, but there were no announcements from the United States or Britain — the two permanent members leading the charge for a tough new resolution.
Britain drafted a resolution “condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad and authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians,” Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted Wednesday.
But Russia, a close ally of Syria, is expected to use its veto power to block a resolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insists there is no proof yet Syria’s government is behind the chemical weapons attack.
The ministry accused Washington of trying to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention.”
“The West handles the Islamic world the way a monkey handles a grenade,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted.
China, which also has a permanent seat on the council, would also probably object to military measures.
“It’s time that the United Nations Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria, which for the past two and a half years it’s failed to do,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
He added that even if China and Russia veto a resolution, “We and other nations still have a responsibility” to act.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, warned Wednesday of “graver conditions” if strikes are carried out against Syria.
“If any country attacks another when it wants, that is like the Middle Ages,” he said.
Obama not ‘trigger-happy,’ U.N. envoy says
Brahimi said international law requires that that the Security Council approve military action.
“I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger-happy,” he said. “What they will decide I don’t know.”
Outside of the United Nations, a military coalition is taking shape among Western powers.
France has also signaled it would join Western military intervention against forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
French President Francois Hollande said France is “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people.”
The French parliament will hold a session next week to debate the situation in Syria.
Britain’s Parliament, meanwhile, is voting on a motion Thursday that would rule out any consideration of possible military action until the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors explain their findings to the U.N. Security Council.
After the inspectors have made their findings, members of Parliament would be required to take another vote, according to the motion being put forward.
Australia said Wednesday it will not send troops to Syria.
Meanwhile, Iran is sending a delegation to Syria on Saturday to “study the latest developments,” the semi-official Fars News Agency reported Wednesday, citing a senior parliamentary lawmaker.
The visit will examine “Syria’s conditions and showing support for the Syrian government and nation after the recent US threats,” Seyed Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, parliament’s national security and foreign policy commissioner, told the news agency.
Some Americans are pushing back against talk of intervention.
A group of 31 Republican and six Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to the president urging him “to consult and receive authorization” before signing off on any military action.
Some fear a U.S. strike could stoke the conflict, not calm it. Others don’t want the administration to go it alone. Reed of Rhode Island said NATO allies must be involved, as well as members of the Arab League.
Former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia is dead set against it. “Both sides are bad,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN.
“There is no victory to be had there.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen reported from Syria. CNN’s Josh Levs and Ben Brumfield reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali, Jomana Karadsheh, Boriana Milanova, Chris Lawrence, Jim Acosta, Samira Said, Joe Sterling, Elise Labott, Jill Dougherty and Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report.
Fred Pleitgen, Josh Levs and Ben Brumfield | CNN