France signaled it might act as the principal U.S. ally in a military strike against Syria, filling a hole left by Britain’s unexpected desertion of President Barack Obama late yesterday.
Hours after British lawmakers pulled the U.K. out of a mission to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons, French President Francois Hollande said he still favors delivering a targeted blow, bypassing a stalemated United Nations Security Council if necessary.
“There are few countries with the capacity to mete out a sanction using appropriate means,” Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper published today. “France is among them and is ready.”
With the U.S. set to publish its intelligence dossier on last week’s chemical attacks near Damascus, Hollande may spare Obama from going it alone in launching airstrikes. French support in the campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad overturns the coalition that fought the Iraq war a decade ago, which Britain backed and France opposed. “International collaboration and effort” is what the U.S. wants, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
After 2 1/2 years of fighting between Assad and an amalgam of rebel groups claimed more than 100,000 lives, last week’s chemical-weapons assault on rebel-held territory jolted Western leaders from issuing condemnations to weighing intervention.
Hundreds were killed in the attack in the Ghouta area east of Damascus, which the U.S. blamed on Assad or his inner circle. Top Obama lieutenants, including Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, made the intelligence case to congressional leaders on a conference call last night.
The Obama administration will release a public version of its intelligence assessment today, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity because the publication hasn’t been officially announced. A British analysis released yesterday only went so far as to deem it “highly likely” that Assad’s regime was behind last week’s killings.
White House officials also lack conclusive evidence backing their assertions that Assad was directly responsible for the massacre, according to three U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations.
Pentagon planners are considering whether a U.S. attack would aggravate the civil war by triggering reprisals with chemical weapons and by giving the upper hand to Syrian rebels aligned with al-Qaeda.
“Intervention isn’t going to change anything on the ground,” said Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment. “It’s only about political hygiene at home. There’s no strategic goal here, no political goal for Syria or the Middle East or any political way forward after strikes.”
Oil prices fell for a second day as the prospect of imminent foreign intervention receded in a region that supplies about a third of the world’s crude. West Texas Intermediate crude dropped as much as 1.9 percent to $106.75 per barrel today.
The timing of the next moves also hangs on a report by a UN on-site inspection team that was mandated to determine whether a chemical attack occurred, not who ordered it and carried it out. The UN inspectors leave Syria tomorrow and then report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron struggled to convince Parliament to back military action because of the tentative nature of the spy reports and the specter of the flawed intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion.
It was the first time in at least 150 years that a U.K. prime minister lost a parliamentary vote on military action, and the most notable such defeat since the 1782 vote of no confidence in Lord North after Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence.
France -- which was on the American side in that war -- is ready to fill the breach on Syria, Hollande said. He set aside France’s traditional fealty to the UN Security Council, saying that a coalition would come together in the event of a deadlock there.
“Every country is sovereign in deciding whether or not to participate in an operation,” Hollande told Le Monde. “That’s true for the U.K. as it is for France.” He said he will speak with Obama today.
France fought alongside the U.S. in the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and was one of the driving forces behind the setup of a NATO no-fly zone and civilian-protection mission over Libya that led to the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Opponents of Assad, who inherited control of Syria in 2000 when his father died after 29 years in power, are clamoring for Western intervention. Burhan Ghalioun, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella opposition group, said today that “if after all the noise and preparations they cancel, they will lose all credibility.”
Setbacks in building the intelligence case and in lining up allies for a strike against Assad revived talk of shipping more arms to the rebel groups that promise to bring democracy to Syria. Military aid was promised by Obama in June.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, yesterday called for the U.S. to step up that support by providing “lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.”
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