Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has warned the US it faces failure if it attacks his country and dismissed claims his regime used chemical weapons as an “insult to common sense”.
Last week’s alleged attack in a Damascus suburb would be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years if confirmed.
Syrian opposition groups have put the death toll as high as 1,300, and a six-car convoy of United Nations experts is heading to inspect the site of the alleged attack.
The US has criticised the move the US has said is too little, too late, prompting speculation that a military response is more likely.
In an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia, Assad warned Washington has never succeeded in reaching its political aims through war.
“The United States faces failure, just like in all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to our days,” he said.
“America has taken part in many wars but could not once achieve its political goals for which the wars were started. Yes, it is true, the great powers can wage wars but can they win them?”
Damascus has strongly denied it carried out the chemical attack, instead blaming the rebels.
“The comments made by politicians in the West and other countries are an insult to common sense. It is nonsense,” Assad said.
He says the Syrian regime would have risked killing its own army forces if it used chemical weapons.
He added: “If someone is dreaming of making Syria a puppet of the West, then this will not happen.”
‘Every hour counts’
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has warned there is no time to waste as UN experts investigate the sites at rebel-held towns east and south-west of Damascus.
“Every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays,” Mr Ban told reporters in Seoul.
Stressing that the “world is watching Syria,” Mr Ban said the UN experts must be allowed to conduct a “full, thorough and unimpeded” investigation.
“We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity,” he said.
Every hour counts. We cannot afford any more delays. The world is watching Syria.Ban Ki Moon
“If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime,” he said.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the UN inspectors will be critical in determining what weapons have been used and ultimately who is responsible.
However, he has raised concerns that by the time inspectors reach the site, they may have trouble finding evidence of a chemical attack.
“The more time elapses with the use of a nerve gas like sarin, its presence in the soil or ground degrades over time and makes it harder to detect,” he said.
“However when it’s been the cause of people’s deaths, there are still opportunities to establish through toxicology whether sarin’s been used.”
UN investigation will not apportion blame
Former Army officer and UN military advisor Dr Rodger Shanahan has served in Syria.
He says if the UN inspectors do find evidence that an attack has occurred, the next question is who ordered it.
“You would think that president Assad would know best of all the consequences of ordering such a strike,” he said.
“It could be somebody in a chain of command who did it without reference to Assad or Assad’s inner circle.
“These are the kinds of issues that we really need to get to the bottom of.”
The UN team is expected to collect forensic evidence including tissue samples as well as fragments from rockets that may have transported the gas.
But Dr Shanahan warns that the UN mandate is limited.
“It allows them to determine if an attack occurred, but doesn’t allow them to apportion blame,” he said.
He says knowledge of the weapon type along with analysis of the craters caused by the rockets, will allow inspectors to draw conclusions about who actually fired the weapons.
Probe is too late to be credible, says US
Earlier remarks from the US that the investigation is too late appear to signal that a military response is more likely.
Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had spoken to the Obama administration about its plans and believed the president would seek authorisation for intervention after Congress convenes on September 9.
“I think we will respond in a surgical way,” he told Fox News on Sunday.
Mr Obama called British prime minister David Cameron on Saturday to discuss options, after a meeting of all his top diplomatic, military and intelligence chiefs at the White House.
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the military would be ready to act if called on by Mr Obama.
“President Obama has asked the Defence Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that,” Mr Hagel said.
The comments follow forceful remarks from other Western powers, including Britain and France, which also believe Assad’s government is behind last week’s attack.
Russia, however, has warned the West against launching military action against the Syrian regime.
The UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule flared in March 2011.