The prospect of imminent military strikes on Syria receded as the U.K. and France said they favor waiting for the results of a United Nations investigation into alleged use of chemical weapons.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is backing away from a bid to win fast parliamentary approval for attacks on President Bashar al-Assad’s military capacity. France said action requires “proof,” pointing to a report due within days by UN inspectors probing the site of last week’s chemical attack near Damascus. The U.S., which is leading the push to punish Assad and says it has evidence that his government was responsible, won’t act without allies, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.
“If any action would be taken against Syria, it would be an international collaboration,” Hagel told a press conference in Brunei. Four days ago, Hagel had said that U.S. forces were ready to act when ordered.
The UN’s investigators will continue their on-site probe tomorrow, leave Syria by early Aug. 31 “and report to me as soon as they come out,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Vienna today.
Memories of the invasion of Iraq a decade ago are shaping the Syria debate and may hamper efforts by western leaders to rally support for intervention. British opposition leader Ed Miliband, who’ll speak in today’s House of Commons debate, referred to the Iraq war and said he’s “unwilling to have those mistakes made again.”
The U.S. says it’s not seeking to topple Assad as it did Saddam Hussein. President Barack Obama’s administration is preparing to declassify intelligence that it says will prove Assad was behind the chemical attack. The findings may be released today or tomorrow.
The Syrian leader has been fighting rebels in a civil war that began more than two years ago. The conflict is increasingly dividing the Middle East, which produces about a third of the world’s oil, along sectarian lines and has opened rifts at the UN Security Council.
Assad told Syrians today he will defend a nation facing “threats of a direct aggression.” In comments reported on state television, he accused western powers and Israel of seeking to divide the region.
One of Assad’s allies, Russia, said today that the UN probe should be widened to include other reports of chemical use in Syria. Russia has signaled it will veto a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.
Cameron’s government today published advice from its lawyers saying that military intervention in Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons would be “legally justifiable” even without such a Security Council mandate.
Another Syrian ally, Iran, warned that Israel will be sucked into any wider Syrian war. U.S. allies in the region, including Sunni Muslim nations Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support the rebels in Syria and are calling for action against Assad.
Investors’ concerns about an immediate military strike receded today after Middle Eastern stocks plunged earlier this week and the risk premium that traders demand to hold bonds from the region rose. West Texas Intermediate oil, which jumped to the highest level in more than two years this week, fell as much as 1.4 percent today.
‘Days or Weeks’
Some kind of military strikes will probably come within a timetable of “days or weeks,” London-based security analyst Control Risks said in an e-mailed report.
The likeliest scenario is “precision missile and/or airstrikes against Syrian military targets” aimed at deterring future use of chemical weapons, it said. That kind of operation wouldn’t “change the general balance of power within Syria or invite substantial retaliation by Syria, Iran, or non-state actors.”
The U.S. has warships and submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles ready for action in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Navy decided yesterday to keep the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region instead of returning it to Washington state as planned, according to a U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified discussing the move.
In London, a Conservative Party rebellion forced Cameron to abandon a plan to seek parliamentary approval tonight for immediate strikes. His position was further undermined when the Labour opposition said it would continue to push for tighter strictures on any operation.
Lawmakers will now vote on whether military action is justified in principle. The debate starts at 2:30 p.m. local time, with a vote scheduled for around 10 p.m. Cameron has pledged a further vote at a later date before any British military action is taken.
“This is a British prime minister facing a defeat on foreign policy,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “I can’t think of a time when this has happened before.”
In the U.S., a survey pre-dating the chemical strikes found more backing for attacks on Assad’s forces, provided American lives weren’t in danger. The July survey by Quinnipiac University found 49 percent of Americans would back such strikes with 38 percent against.
There are signs of doubts among U.S. politicians about a Syria strike, though. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said last night that Obama has a duty to provide “a clear, unambiguous explanation” of how any military action would advance U.S. objectives.
Senior administration officials are scheduled to brief congressional leaders and the chairmen of national-security committees later today, according to a White House official, who asked not to be identified.
France prefers to wait until UN inspectors conclude their on-site probe, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman, said today. “Before acting, we need proof,” she said. The report should be ready in “two or three days.”
A decade ago, France teamed with Germany and Russia to oppose the American and British invasion of Iraq. While the alliances have shifted, the Iraq experience is seared into French attitudes.
“Do we know with certainty who used these vile weapons? No,” Jacques Myard, a French opposition lawmaker who sits on the foreign affairs committee, said in an e-mailed statement. “Once bitten, twice shy: the Iraq affair remains on everyone’s mind.”
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