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U.S. and France prepare to act on Syria

U.S. and France prepare to act on Syria

Protesters loyal to the Shi'ite Muslim Al-Houthi group, also known as Ansarullah, march during a demonstration against potential strikes on the Syrian government, in Sanaa. Photo: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

PARIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – France said on Friday it still backed military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for an apparent poison gas attack on civilians and Washington pushed ahead with plans for a response despite a British parliamentary vote against a military strike.

An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close Assad ally, seized on Thursday’s British “no” vote which set back U.S.-led efforts to intervene against Assad, saying it reflected wider European worries about the dangers of a military response.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his country would keep seeking an international coalition to act together on Syria, where hundreds of people were killed in last week’s reported chemical attacks. Syria denies using chemical weapons and says rebels perpetrated the attacks.

“It is the goal of President (Barack) Obama and our government … whatever decision is taken, that it be an international collaboration and effort,” he said.

The White House said it would release later on Friday an unclassified version of an intelligence assessment of an alleged chemical weapons attack last week in Syria, a U.S. official said.

Any military strike looks unlikely at least until U.N. investigators report back after they leave Syria on Saturday.

The timing of any strikes may be complicated by Obama’s departure late on Tuesday for Sweden and a G20 summit in Russia. He was not expected to order the strikes while in Sweden or Russia.

French President Francois Hollande told the daily Le Monde he still supported taking “firm” punitive action over an attack he said had caused “irreparable” harm to the Syrian people, adding that he would work closely with France’s allies.

Britain has traditionally been the United States’ most reliable military ally. However, the defeat of a the government motion authorizing a military response in principle underscored misgivings dating from how the country decided to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful diplomatic ally, opposes any military intervention in Syria, saying an attack would increase tension and undermine the chances of ending the civil war.

Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said the British vote represented majority opinion in Europe.

“People are beginning to understand how dangerous such scenarios are,” he told reporters. “Russia is actively working to avert a military scenario in Syria.

“CORE INTERESTS”

Russia holds veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member and has blocked three resolutions meant to press Assad to stop the violence since a revolt against him began in 2011.

U.S. officials suggested that Obama would be willing to order limited military action even without allied support.

“He (Obama) 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,” the White House said after the British vote.

Obama convened a meeting on Friday morning of his national security team, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, in the White House situation room to discuss Syria, a White House official said.

Kerry was due to make a statement on Syria at 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT).

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he regretted parliament’s failure to back military action in Syria but he hoped Obama would understand the need to listen to the wishes of the people. “I don’t think it’s a question of having to apologize,” he said in a television interview.

Finance minister George Osborne, one of Cameron’s closest allies, accepted that the vote had raised questions about Britain’s future relations with its allies.

“There will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system,” he said.

Pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexei Pushkov said the British vote had damaged the case for military action. “Britain’s refusal to support aggression against Syria is a very strong blow to the position of the supporters of war, both in NATO and in the United States. The rift is growing deeper,” he said on Twitter.

Hollande is not constrained by the need for parliamentary approval of any move to intervene in Syria and could act, if he chose, before lawmakers debate the issue on Wednesday.

“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,” Hollande said.

“GLOBAL CONFLAGRATION”

In a briefing with senior lawmakers on Thursday, Obama administration officials said they had “no doubt” Assad’s government had used chemical weapons, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, who joined the call, told Reuters.

U.S. officials acknowledged they lacked proof that Assad personally ordered last week’s poison gas attack, but in a call with lawmakers, cited “intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials” among other evidence, Engel said.

Some allies have warned that military action without U.N. Security Council authorization may make matters worse.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said on Friday there should be no attack without a U.N. resolution, expressing concern about how Assad’s allies, including the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, would respond.

“There’s talk of targeted attacks, but it’s clear that all attacks begin as targeted attacks. Syria will react and we must fear how Hezbollah, Russia and Iran could react. An already dramatic and terrible conflict risks turning into a global conflagration,” she said in an interview broadcast on SkyTG24.

“Even if it seems slower, more difficult and sometimes does not seem to be working, keeping the diplomatic and political pressure high is the only possible solution.”

The White House has emphasized that any action would be “very discrete and limited”, and in no way comparable with the Iraq war.

The U.N. investigators visited a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus on Friday to see soldiers affected by an apparent chemical attack, a Reuters witness said.

The inspectors have spent the week visiting rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus affected by gas attacks.

Witnesses said the investigators were meeting soldiers at the Mezze Military Airport who state media said were exposed to poison gas after finding chemical agents in a tunnel used by rebels in the Damascus suburb of Jobar last Saturday.

CHINA OPPOSES HASTY U.N. ACTION

The United Nations says the team will leave Syria on Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The United States, Britain and France have said action could be taken with or without a U.N. Security Council resolution, which would probably be vetoed by Russia and perhaps China.

Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council on a draft measure, which would authorize “all necessary force” in response to the alleged gas attack, to isolate Moscow and show that other nations back military action.

But China said there should be no rush to force a council decision on Syria until the U.N. inspectors complete their work.

“Before the investigation finds out what really happened, all parties should avoid prejudging the results, and certainly ought not to forcefully push for the Security Council to take action,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a phone call, Xinhua reported.

Hollande told Le Monde it was now an “established fact” that chemical weapons had been used in Damascus and said France had “a stack of evidence” that Assad’s forces were responsible.

China’s foreign minister told his French counterpart Laurent Fabius by telephone that it was important to determine not only if chemical weapons were used but who used them.

The samples collected by U.N. inspectors in Syria will be analyzed in Sweden and Finland, a Swedish paper reported, quoting a United Nations spokesman.

Elaborate bio-metric analysis of blood, hair or urine samples is expected to be done in laboratories, which are among 22 used by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 17 countries.

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