Secretary of State John Kerry failed to sway his European counterparts on the urgency of a U.S.-led military strike to halt the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s more than two-year civil war.
France, the principal U.S. ally in a possible assault, slowed its march to a confrontation by backing a European Union appeal to put off an armed response until the United Nations delivers a report on last month’s alleged use of chemical agents in a massacre near Damascus.
“The EU underscores at the same time the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process,” Catherine Ashton, the 28-nation bloc’s foreign-policy chief, told reporters after EU foreign ministers met Kerry in Vilnius, Lithuania.
U.S. setbacks in securing international backing for targeted strikes on Syria’s war-making capability are matched by President Barack Obama’s trouble at home in persuading Congress to authorize an American intervention.
Kerry thanked the EU for “a strong statement about the need for accountability,” then left Vilnius for Paris to meet French leaders tonight and Arab League foreign ministers tomorrow. Kerry proceeds to London to consult British and Saudi officials, and to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Surprise for U.S.
The EU statement, calling for a strong response to the attack and for the UN to lead that effort, came as a pleasant surprise to U.S. officials who hadn’t been expecting a comment from the group, said a State Department official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
While the European officials didn’t ask Kerry to commit to a delay, Ashton said he will go back to Washington and “think about what we were saying.”
Kerry also made clear that the U.S. hasn’t made a decision to wait to take action on Syria, the State Department official said.
Even so, the timing of a UN report, which is expected in about two weeks, coincides with the current schedule for the U.S. House of Representatives to debate Obama’s request for Congress to authorize a military strike, meaning the administration will be forced to wait regardless.
Kerry spent 90 minutes in his meeting with EU ministers discussing the Mideast peace process and another 90 minutes on Syria, the State Department official said. Kerry opened the Syria discussion by arguing that limited strikes on regime facilities were the best response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
For the rest of the meeting, ministers exchanged views on what the appropriate response should be, with different countries holding different positions, the U.S. official said.
Obama will make his case to the U.S. public in a televised address on the evening of Sept. 10. In a preview of that speech, he said in his weekly radio and Internet address today that the failure to punish Syria’s chemical weapons use would embolden terrorists and rogue states and “pose a serious threat to our national security.”
A Group of 20 summit in Russia that ended yesterday exposed international divisions, with resistance led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the prime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While Putin’s objections echoed Russia’s opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq invasion of Iraq in 2003 and underlined current strains between Moscow and Washington, the European doubts about the case for war came from putative U.S. allies.
The buildup toward another intervention by Western powers in the Middle East has pushed oil prices to a two-year high. West Texas Intermediate crude rose 2 percent to $110.53 per barrel yesterday.
France and Britain have both produced intelligence dossiers backing U.S. assertions that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.
France, which teamed with Germany and Russia to oppose the Iraq war, emerged as the principal European voice in favor of military intervention in Syria after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a British fighting role was repudiated by parliament in London.
The full EU allowed only that the intelligence “seems to indicate” that Assad’s regime was the culprit in what it called a “blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity,” according to Ashton. The EU urged waiting until UN laboratories establish the facts of the massacre.
EU divisions pit France and Denmark, among the most vocal supporters of a military response, against Germany, a European diplomat present in the meetings told reporters. Some fear a strike could create a rally-around-Assad effect in Damascus, said the diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Europe’s misgivings were exemplified by France, which completed a 24-hour policy reversal today. On arriving in Vilnius yesterday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he saw no point in waiting for the UN report because “everyone knows” that chemical weapons were used east of Damascus and that the UN won’t resolve the question of who used them.
After the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, French President Francois Hollande contradicted his foreign minister, saying France too would wait to hear from the UN analysts.
The EU “hopes a preliminary report of this first investigation can be released as soon as possible and welcomes President Hollande’s statement to wait for this report before any further action,” Ashton said.
Hollande remained on board with a possible military strike, saying it would “accelerate a political solution” to a conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead. France would arm the rebels if Congress rejects a U.S. intervention, he said.