Syria has asked the United Nations to prevent any foreign military strikes amid fears the US will carry out an attack in the coming days. Meanwhile, Russia says US proof of the use of chemical weapons is "unconvincing."
Fears of an impending US-led military intervention prompted Syria's foreign minister to turn to the United Nations for help on Monday. In a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UN President of the Security Council Cristina Perceval, Syrian Foreign Minister Bashar Ja'afri called on the international body to ensure no foreign nation infringes on Syria's sovereignty by interfering militarily in the ongoing civil war.
He also called on the Security Council to "maintain its role as a safety valve to prevent the absurd use of force out of the frame of international legitimacy."
The urgent call for action followed US President Barack Obama's announcement on Saturday that the US military was prepared to strike Syria at a moment's notice if need be. In an unexpected move, however, he said he was first seeking the approval of Congress, which is scheduled to debate the issue when it goes back into session on September 9.
An alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus nearly two weeks ago has heightened the sense of urgency regarding intervention options in the war-torn country. At least 1,429 people were killed in the attack, according to US figures. Secretary of State John Kerry told US television broadcasters CNN and NBC on Sunday that initial tests from the site by UN inspectors had tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
The war between President al-Assad's government and Syrian opposition groups has claimed over 100,000 lives and driven nearly 2 million refugees into neighboring countries since it began in March 2011.
Russia dismisses US evidence
US officials briefed Moscow and Beijing - both of whom have vetoed western-backed efforts before the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria - on proof al-Assad has deployed chemical weapons, according to Russian and Chinese officials on Monday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the evidence "absolutely unconvincing," during a university lecture on Monday, adding that there were "no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals."
"If we are going to state that these are pictures of the use of chemical arms and of the effects on the victims, then there is a mass of disparities and absurdities," Lavrov said, adding that US officials had only disclosed a portion of the evidence.
The rejection of Washington's claims on Monday coincided with a report that Moscow had deployed a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria.
The SSV-201 intelligence ship Priazovye left a Black Sea port overnight on Sunday "to gather current information in the area of the escalating conflict," according to Russia's Interfax news agency, quoting an anonymous military source. Russia's defense ministry has not yet commented on the report.
NATO calls for response
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for a "firm" response to the allegations against al-Assad, adding that he had found the US evidence convincing.
"It would send a very...dangerous signal to dictators all over the world if we stand idly by and don't react," Rasmussen said during a Monday conference in Brussels.
However, NATO has not yet made a decision about the type of response, Rasmussen added.
Calls for legal and legitimate action
China joined a growing number of countries on Monday to push for collective efforts to end the Syrian conflict. A spokesman for the foreign ministry told reporters that China was calling on the United States to cooperate with the international community in finding a solution. He refrained, however, from assessing the veracity of the evidence on the alleged chemical attack.
A day earlier Arab foreign ministers agreed the culprits of the alleged Damascus attack must face justice, according to a statement released in Cairo following an emergency meeting. They stopped short of calling for military action.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government remained supportive of a political solution, but would not participate in a military intervention, a point which she reiterated during a political debate against Social Democrat rival Peer Steinbrück on Sunday evening.
French President Francois Hollande appears the most likely ally to support a US strike,as he has expressed support for punitive action against Assad's regime. The French government was one of the first this year to claim it had evidence of the deployment of chemical arms in Syria.
kms/ccp (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)