DAMASCUS: French President Francois Hollande gave a boost yesterday to US plans to forge an international coalition for possible strikes against Syria after British lawmakers rejected any involvement in military action.
The White House had signalled on Thursday that President Barack Obama, guided by the “best interests” of the United States, was ready to go it alone on Syria after deadly chemical weapons attacks last week.
But Russia, the Syrian regime’s most powerful ally, questioned US intelligence on the gas attacks and warned any military strikes without UN backing would deal a serious blow to “world order”.
In Damascus, UN experts began a final day of investigations into the attacks, visiting an army hospital where victims were reportedly being treated. The team is due to leave the war-battered country today and report back immediately to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Faced with an impasse at the UN Security Council and the British parliament’s shock rejection of any punitive action against Damascus, the United States has been forced to look elsewhere for international partners.
While Germany and Canada ruled out joining any military strikes, Hollande — whose country was a strident opponent of the US-led war on Iraq — said the British vote would not affect his government’s stance. “France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime,” Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.
“All options are on the table,” he said. Hollande, responding to a question, did not exclude the possibility of military strikes within days, even prior to an emergency session of parliament on Wednesday to debate the issue.
Both the US and France however underscore that any military action is not aimed at toppling Assad but only forcing his regime to stop using chemical weapons.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said despite the British vote, the White House was still seeking an “international coalition that will act together” against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. “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 said in the Philippines.
The British government’s defeat in parliament — by just 13 votes — came after the failure of an 11th-hour effort by British diplomats to win UN backing for action at a meeting of the permanent members of the Security Council.
Gruesome pictures of some of the several hundred reported victims of the August 21 attacks, including children, shocked the world and piled on the pressure for a response that could draw a reluctant West into the Syrian civil war.
But Russia and fellow Syria ally Iran have warned against any intervention, saying it risked sparking a wider conflict in the already volatile Middle East.
US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said 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.”
Some members of the US Congress voiced support for limited surgical strikes, while urging transparency from the administration. “It is clear that the American people are weary of war. However, Assad gassing his own people is an issue of our national security, regional stability and global security. We must be clear that the United States rejects the use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime,” said Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House.
Military buildup was continuing in the region, with US warships armed with scores of cruise missiles converging on the eastern Mediterranean.
In Damascus the mood was heavy with fear and security forces were making preparations for possible air bombardments, pulling soldiers back from potential targets. More than 100,000 people have already died in Syria’s vicious 29-month war and about three million more have been force to flee their homes, according to UN figures.
Assad’s main arms supplier Russia has blocked all attempts to toughen sanctions against Damascus or authorise outside force to punish or unseat the regime. Putin’s chief foreign policy aide Uri Ushakov complained yesterday that the US was not sharing its intelligence about the gas attacks and so “we do not believe it”. And he said any military action that bypasses the Security Council “will deal a serious blow to the entire system of world order”.
Assad, whose regime strongly denies using chemical weapons and instead blames “terrorist” rebels, remains defiant. “Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression,” he said on Thursday, vowing “victory” for his people.
Syria’s jittery neighbours have also taken steps to boost security. Israel deployed its Iron Dome missile defence system in Tel Aviv, reports said, amid fears Assad or his allies from the Hezbollah Shia militia in Lebanon will retaliate against the Jewish state.