US and France press on with Syria strike plans as Britain, Germany opt out
British lawmakers have rejected their government’s call for military strikes against the Syrian government, leaving the US to look elsewhere for international partners while reserving the right to act alone against Damascus.
The British House of Commons voted Thursday to defy Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to win support for military intervention over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
The Syrian government has firmly denied responsibility for the attacks.
Speaking in Manila Friday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted Washington is still seeking an “international coalition” to take action against Assad.
“Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together,” Hagel told a news conference.
But he did not say which countries might be part of an international coalition, and his comments appeared to strike a different tone from earlier statements by White House officials suggesting the US is prepared to act alone.
Hagel said Washington respected the British parliament’s stance rejecting participation in any strikes in Syria.
“We are continuing to consult with the British as with all of our allies. That consultation includes ways forward together on a response to this chemical weapons attack in Syria,” he added.
French President Francois Hollande said the British vote against taking military action in Syria would not affect France’s will to act to against Assad.
Hollande told the daily Le Monde in an interview that he still supported taking “firm” punitive action over an attack he said had caused “irreparable” harm to the Syrian people and said he would work closely with France’s allies.
Asked if France could take action without Britain, Hollande replied: “Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France.”
Hollande said a military strike on Syria could come by Wednesday, when the French parliament is due to meet for an emergency session on Syria.
The French leader said that he would not take any decision to act unless the conditions were there to justify that.
“All the options are on the table. France wants action that is in proportion and firm against the Damascus regime,” he said.
“There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies.”
The British parliament’s decision also came after the failure of an improbable eleventh-hour effort by British diplomats to win UN backing for action against Bashar al-Assad at a meeting of the permanent members of the Security Council.
“It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly,” Cameron said.
His government was defeated by 13 votes in the House of Commons in its bid for a “strong humanitarian response” to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle ruled out his country’s participation in the military strike.
Westerwelle told Saturday’s Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that such a move had “neither been asked nor is it being considered by us”, according to pre-released comments by the paper.
“We are pushing for the United Nations Security Council to find a common position and for the work of UN inspectors to be finished as quickly as possible,” he added.
That, combined with deadlock at the United Nations, appeared to effectively sound the death knell for the idea of a broad-based Western military coalition, although other American allies might still participate.
Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman said that President Barack Obama’s decision-making “will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States.”
“He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”
Earlier, envoys from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – had met at UN headquarters in New York.
The 45-minute meeting was the second since Britain proposed a draft resolution to permit “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians after a suspected chemical weapons attack last week.
But none of the envoys commented as they left.
Earlier in the week reports had suggested that a Western strike was imminent, but questions have been raised about the quality of the intelligence linking Assad to the attack.
The White House reached out to US lawmakers, with the president’s top aides briefing congressional leaders in a 90 minute conference call.
Some members of Congress voiced support for limited, surgical strikes, while urging the administration to continue consulting closely with the Congress.
Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House, said she agreed with House Speaker John Boehner that “there needs to be more consultation with all members of Congress and additional transparency into the decision making process and timing, and that the case needs to be made to the American people.
US warships armed with scores of cruise missiles are converging on the eastern Mediterranean, and US military officials have said they are ready to launch a powerful barrage against government targets in Syria.
Assad ally Russia has blocked all attempts to toughen international sanctions against Damascus or authorize outside force to punish or unseat Assad.
As the stand-off continues, a team of UN inspectors are investigating reports that last week’s gas attack outside Damascus killed more than 350 people, including women and children.
A UN spokesman said Thursday that the team had collected “considerable” evidence and will brief UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon soon after they leave Syria on Saturday.
“Starting tomorrow he will try to reach out to member states and take discussions forward on the question of what is happening in Syria,” the spokesman said.
Ban has appealed for the inspectors to be allowed to complete their work before the major powers decide any follow-up action.
Assad remained defiant in the face of the Western threats.
“Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression,” state television cited him as telling a visiting delegation of Yemeni politicians.
He vowed that any attack would result in “victory” for the Syrian people.
His government has denied using chemical weapons and blamed “terrorist” rebels.
The mood among Damascus residents was fearful, while security forces prepared for possible air attacks by pulling back soldiers from potential targets and introducing tougher controls at roadblocks and hospitals.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)