Western envoys have told the Syrian opposition to expect a military response soon against President Bashar al-Assad's forces as punishment for a chemical weapons attack last week, according to sources who attended a meeting with the rebel Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul.
               
Amid a quickening drumbeat of preparations, Australia, a close US ally and incoming chair of the United Nations Security Council, on Wednesday endorsed possible action against Syria even if the security council fails to agree.
               
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Tuesday that American forces in the region are ‘ready to go’ if President Barack Obama gives the order.
               
Obama - long reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict - worked to solidify allied support, including calling the leaders of Britain and Canada, while US intelligence agencies assembled what they are sure to say is final confirmation of the Syrian government's culpability for Wednesday's poison gas attack near Damascus.
               
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it would be ‘fanciful’ to think that anyone other than Assad's forces was behind the large-scale chemical attack, which activists said killed hundreds of people as they slept.
               
"There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime," Vice President Joe Biden said at a speech in Houston to the American Legion, a military veterans' group.
               
Top US national security aides gathered to review the situation on Tuesday night in a meeting chaired by Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice, officials said.
               
Obama is yet to make a final decision on the US response, Carney said, but left little doubt that it would involve military action. He insisted, however, that Washington was not intent on ‘regime change,’ signalling that any military strikes would be limited and not meant to topple Assad.
               
The British military was also drafting plans. Prime Minister David Cameron, anxious, like Obama, not to emulate entanglements in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that beset their predecessors, said that any strikes would be ‘specific’ so as not to drag the allies deeper into Syria's civil war.

Cameron, who spoke to Obama on Tuesday for the second time in four days, recalled parliament for a debate on Syria on Thursday. UN chemical weapons investigators put off until Wednesday a second trip to the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus where the chemical attack took place.
               
While evidence of chemical warfare could bolster an argument for intervention at the United Nations in the face of likely Russian and Chinese opposition, Western leaders and the Arab League have already declared Assad guilty.
               
Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, met envoys from 11 countries at an Istanbul hotel, including the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. The rebel leaders proposed targets for cruise missiles and bombing.
               
One participant said, "The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days."
               
The plan appears to focus on missile or air strikes. There is little public support in Western countries for troops to invade Syria. The precise timing of possible military action remains unclear, but it is certain to wait for an official US intelligence report expected to blame Assad's government for the chemical attack. The findings, considered merely a formality at this point, will be released this week, US officials said.

(Agencies)

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