DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrians stocked up on bread, canned food and candles Friday as the U.S. and France prepared for a potential military strike against the Syrian government, which the West alleges used chemical weapons against civilians in its civil war.
After Britain’s Parliament voted against participating in military action against the regime of President Bashar Assad, the United States found itself with France as its only major partner in an armed intervention.
French President Francois Hollande pledged strong support for a U.S. operation, despite the British rejection and the Obama administration facing skepticism at home from lawmakers.
“The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished,” Hollande said in an interview published Friday by the newspaper Le Monde.
In Syria, U.N. inspectors began what was expected to be the last day of their probe into the alleged attack on Aug. 21 that the international aid group Doctors Without Borders says killed at least 355 people in a Damascus suburb.
They are expected to leave Syria on Saturday and then brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on their findings.
President Barack Obama was convening senior national security advisers at the White House to discuss plans for possible military action against Syria.
The meeting was expected to be followed by the public release of a report on intelligence the U.S. has gathered about the alleged chemical weapons attack.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking from Manila, Philippines, issued an impassioned defense of the principles behind the planned strike.
“I don’t know of any responsible government around the world ... that has not spoken out in violent opposition to the use of chemical weapons on innocent people,” Hagel said.
He added that such attacks violate basic standards of decency.
Hagel said that Washington would continue to seek partners in its Syria mission: “Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together.”
On Thursday, the U.S. administration shared intelligence with lawmakers in an effort to convince them that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.
Damascus shops and supermarkets were filled with people stocking up on food and other necessities ahead of the expected strikes.
Despite large crowds on the streets, there appeared to be no signs of panic or shortages.
Residents complained, however, that prices have shot up because of the high demand.
Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee, put on a brave face.
“We got used to the sound of shelling,” he said. “Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I’m not afraid.”
Some rebels were excitedly anticipating U.S.-led strikes, hoping it would help them advance toward Damascus and change the course of the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to stream into neighboring countries.
But military intervention was unappealing to many in Damascus, even among opponents of the regime.
“As a Syrian citizen, I just cannot support a Western attack on my country,” said one resident who refused to give her name out of fears for her security. “I’m so scared that I haven’t slept in three days.”
The U.N. inspectors headed out in a three-vehicle convoy following an early morning delay.
The U.N. has said some of the inspectors will travel to laboratories in Europe to deliver the material they’ve collected this week during trips to the Damascus suburbs purportedly hit by toxic gas.
Russia, which as a staunch ally of the Assad regime is fiercely hostile to military intervention, expressed bewilderment at why the U.N. team was leaving so soon.
“We don’t quite understand why the entire team had to be going back to The Hague when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria,” said Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adviser.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the timing reflected the urgency of getting any samples to laboratories, noting that the inspectors must do that themselves to “ensure the chain of custody.” He said the inspectors intend to return to Syria to investigate other alleged attacks.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government would “reject any partial report published by the U.N. secretary-general before the mission finished its work and the results of analyses of samples taken by the mission are completed.”
In a phone call with Ban, he also said Syria expects the U.N. to investigate the sites where Syrian troops were exposed to toxic gases.
Witnesses said they were seen visiting a military hospital Friday, possibly to take samples from Syrian soldiers that the government says inhaled poison gas earlier this week near Damascus.
Both the rebels and the Syrian government blame each other for using chemical weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that military strikes would lead to long-term destabilization of Syria and the region. He has spoken against any use of force without U.N. Security Council approval, which he said would be a “crude violation of international law.”
In Paris, Hollande suggested that intervention could even come ahead of Wednesday’s session of the French Parliament, called to discuss the Syria situation; lawmakers’ approval is not needed for Hollande to order military action.
“I will not take a decision before having all the elements that would justify it,” he told Le Monde. However, noting that he had convened parliament, he added: “And if I have (already) committed France, the government will inform (lawmakers) of the means and objectives.”
The British parliament voted Thursday night against military action in Syria. Italy and Germany have said they won’t take part in any military action that doesn’t have the backing of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia would almost certainly wield a veto.
“This is proof that most of the public realized the extent of this political game that is led by America for the interests of Israel,” said Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh.
Hollande said France is among the few nations capable of “inflicting a sanction by the appropriate means” and “it is ready.” A decision will be made in close coordination with allies, he said.
France has historic ties to Syria, having once ruled the country; it also has warplanes and strategic interest in the region. Paris has embraced the Syrian opposition and urged a firm response against Assad over the purported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
French military analysts say France’s most likely role would be from the air, including use of Scalp cruise missiles that have a range of about 500 kilometers (300 miles), fired from Mirage and Rafale fighter jets. French fighters could likely fly directly from mainland France — much as they did at the start of a military campaign against Islamic radicals in Mali earlier this year — with support from refueling aircraft. France also has six Rafale jets at Al Dhafra air base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf, and seven Mirage-2000 jets at an air base in Djibouti, on the Red Sea.
Hollande reiterated that any action is aimed at punishing Assad, not toppling him.
“I won’t talk of war, but of a sanction for a monstrous violation of the human person,” he said. “It will have a dissuasive value.”
Ganley reported from Paris. Angela Charlton in Paris and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.
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