WASHINGTON - The United States laid the groundwork for unilateral military action in Syria, a shift officials said reflected Britain’s stunning decision not to participate, following the release of an American intelligence report assessing with ‘high confidence’ that the Syrian government planned and launched last week’s chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
US Secretary of State John Kerry released the details on Friday obviously intended to muster support at home and abroad for a military response. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a meeting with five permanent members of the Security - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - cautioned against launching any military strike without the authorisation of the 15-member body, diplomats said. The Council is deadlocked as Russia and China have made it clear that they would veto any resolution seeking approval for the use of force against Syria.
But diplomats and experts noted that the push for a quick international strike to punish Syria for what the US said was a chemical-weapons attack was in disarray, after British lawmakers defeated a government motion in support of military action.
After the release of the intelligence report, President Barack Obama said Friday he hasn’t made a final decision about a military strike. But he added he’s considering a limited and narrow action.
Obama says that the alleged chemical weapons in Syria attack were a challenge to the world and threatens US national security.
Citing evidence including video footage of children and other victims lying dead with no visible wounds, Secretary Kerry said such “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons” is what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “did to his own people.”
Kerry’s statement and the release of the declassified intelligence report came as President Obama’s administration faced rising resistance to a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to its use of banned chemical weapons.
Britain’s Parliament voted against joining a coalition sought by Obama to respond militarily, denying the president a key NATO ally that has steadfastly supported previous campaigns.
Other European allies support action against Syria but want the United Nations to lead the effort, something Kerry said would not happen because of opposition by permanent Security Council member Russia.
At home, questions about the veracity of the US intelligence and whether Washington is headed for another war based on false information - like happened in Iraq - have emerged from both parties in Congress.
Kerry insisted Friday that the situation differs from Iraq, saying the intelligence community “reviewed and re-reviewed” its information “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.” And he added: “We will not repeat that moment.”
He cited particular evidence that shows al-Assad’s regime was responsible.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said. “And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
In addition, “we know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time,” he said. “We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods.”
Quoting from the US assessment, Kerry said the attack killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
“We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs,” he said.
Citing support from the Arab League, Turkey and France, Kerry said, “We are not alone in our will to do something” in response to the attack. He brushed off the British Parliament vote against joining a military invention, saying that the United States “makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests” in deciding the proper course of action.
Meanwhile, the UN mission investigating the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria has completed its collection of samples, said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the UN secretary-general.
Nesirky told reporters that inspectors visited a government military hospital in Damascus and the last of them will leave Syria on Saturday.
As the UN inspectors prepared to leave Syria, Obama met with his national security team.
While the British vote was a blow to Obama’s hopes of getting strong support from key NATO allies and some Arab League states, regional NATO ally Turkey on Friday backed the US.
The White House has made clear that the United States will respond in some form to the Syrian use of banned chemical weapons, but said Obama is still deciding exactly what to do.
Agencies add: While Germany and Canada ruled out joining any military strikes, French President Francois Hollande - whose country was a strident opponent of the US-led war on Iraq - said the British decision 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.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the White House was still seeking an “international coalition that will act together” against Assad’s regime.
But Russia and Iran, and even some US allies and respected commentators, have warned against any intervention, saying it risked sparking a wider conflict.
Divisions over Syria have further chilled the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow ahead of the G20 summit next week in Saint Petersburg, where pointedly there will be no face-to-face talks between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said military strikes risked escalating the conflict into a “global conflagration”.
Syria’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 Friday 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”.