Syrian rebel fighters run for cover during clashes with forces loyal to President Assad in Aleppo. (Reuters)
Washington/Beirut, Aug 29 (Reuters): US President Barack Obama told Americans a military strike against Syria is in their interest following a gas attack last week and Britain said armed action would be legal, but intervention looked set to be delayed until UN investigators report back.
While UN chemical weapons inspectors spent a third day combing the rebel-held suburb where the attack took place, elsewhere in Damascus traffic moved normally, with some extra army presence but little indication of any high alert.
A parliamentary debate in London revealed deep misgivings stemming from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After pressure from lawmakers, the British government — a key player in any proposed air assault on Syria — has promised Parliament a decisive vote once the UN weapons inspectors report their findings.
The UN said its team of inspectors investigating the attacks, which killed hundreds of people, will leave Syria on Saturday and then report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
France and Germany urged the world body to pass its report on to the decision-making Security Council as soon as possible “so that it can fulfil its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime”.
The US, Britain and France say they can act with or without a UN Security Council resolution, which is likely to be vetoed by Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, some countries are raising qualms: Italy said it would not join any military operation without Security Council authorisation.
Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council to isolate Moscow and demonstrate that other countries are behind air strikes.
“It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the Security Council,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament.
He published legal advice given to the government, under which military action would be lawful for humanitarian reasons even if a Security Council resolution were blocked.
The International Committee of the Red Cross joined a chorus of international voices urging caution.
“Further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense,” said Magne Barth, head of the ICRC delegation in Syria.
Increasing expectations that any action will be delayed ended a three-day sell off on world share markets today, although investors were still on edge over future turmoil in West Asia.
Obama sought to win over a war-weary American public by saying intervention in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in two-and-a-half years of civil war, would serve US national security interests.
“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” he said in a televised interview.
While saying he had not yet made a decision on military action, Obama left little doubt the choice was not whether but when to punish Syria for the gas attacks.
“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” he said yesterday.
Syria denies blame for the gas attacks and says they were perpetrated by rebels. Washington and its allies say the denial is not credible.
A report from Moscow that Russia plans to send two warships to the eastern Mediterranean underscored the complications surrounding even a limited military strike, although Russia has said it will not be drawn into military conflict.
Western leaders are expected in Russia next Thursday for a meeting of the Group of 20 big economies, an event that could influence the timing of any strikes. The hosts have made clear their view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.
“At this stage it is necessary to take all needed actions to avert possible negative developments ... or some kind of military action regarding Syria,” Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov told state-run Rossiya-24 television. “And that is what we... focusing our efforts on now.”
A spokesman for the main Syrian Opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the oOpposition was confident Western leaders were prepared to act.
SNC leader Ahmed Jarba met French President Francois Hollande. An SNC spokesman said they discussed a two-wave intervention to first target installations used to launch chemical weapons and then hit other government bases in Syria.
“We are very happy. France and its partners are quite decided to punish the Syrian regime,” SNC envoy Monzer Makhous said after the talks.
“Then there will be military aid to help the opposition to change the balance of power.”