December 12, 2013
West readies attack, UN Council set for Syria clash
The United Nations Security Council was set for a showdown over Syria after Britain sought authorization for Western military action that seems certain to be vetoed by Russia and probably China.
UN chemical weapons experts investigating an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus made a second trip across the front line to take samples. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleaded for them to be given the time they need to complete their mission.
But the United States and European and Middle East allies have already pinned the blame on Assad and, even without full UN authorization, US-led air or missile strikes on Syria look all but certain, though the timing is far from clear.
That has set Western leaders on a collision course with Moscow, Assad's main arms supplier, as well as with China, which also has a veto in the Security Council and disapproves of what it sees as a push for Iraq-style "regime change" - despite US denials that President Barack Obama aims to overthrow Assad.
Uncertainty over how the escalation of the conflict at the heart of the oil-exporting Middle East will affect trade, and the world economy sent oil prices, and gold, to their highest levels in months while stocks fell. Fears over the economy of Syria's hostile neighbor Turkey pushed its lira to a record low.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would propose a resolution at the Security Council in New York, seeking authority to take "necessary measures" to protect Syrian civilians. Sure of a veto, it seemed part of diplomatic strategy to isolate Moscow and rally a broad coalition behind Washington.
"We've always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that," Cameron said in a statement.
Germany, Europe's economic superpower, urged Russia to back the resolution. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already said earlier in the day that any attack would be folly.
UN chief Ban pleaded for unity in the Security Council after more than two years of paralysis during which Syria's civil war has split the Middle East on sectarian lines and fuelled rival camps in the world body along divisions that echo the Cold War.
"Syria is the biggest challenge of war and peace in the world today," he said in a speech at The Hague. "The body entrusted with maintaining international peace and security cannot be missing in action. The Council must at last find the unity to act. It must use its authority for peace."
Ban's special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said "international law is clear" in requiring Council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders have made clear they are ready to do without it, citing precedents for foreign intervention to protect civilians.
Rebel fighters and opposition activists said they showed UN inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week's gas release. They would also be testing and interviewing survivors, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack.
Amateur video showed the convoy of white, UN jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.
As long as the UN team is in Syria, Western action is unlikely - making the presence of the investigators led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom a key element in the timing of what many expect to be a day or two of attacks.
No strikes, expected to involve cruise missiles fired by US ships in the Mediterranean, are likely before Obama has an intelligence report on the August 21 gas attack. Its conclusions, however, are scarcely in doubt.
Air strikes are also unlikely before Cameron has given the British parliament an opportunity to be seen to support his policy, in a debate scheduled for Thursday. Like the United States, Britain has warships in the Mediterranean. It also has an air base on Cyprus, 200 km (120 miles) from the Syrian coast.
The British government is not obliged to win a vote, but with voters wary of new military entanglements after over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cameron, like fellow Western leaders, will want broad backing.
Many British lawmakers across the political spectrum are uneasy about the prospect of air strikes, and a YouGov poll published on Wednesday showed 50 percent of the British public opposed a missile strike, with just 25 percent in favor.
The French parliament was also recalled on Wednesday, but only for a session set for next Wednesday, September 4. It was unclear if that indicated that President Francois Hollande does not expect military action to start before then.