December 9, 2013
Obama, Cameron make a case for Syria strike
President Barack Obama and his allies sought to convince cautious lawmakers and the public of the need to strike Syria although officials conceded they lacked conclusive evidence that President Bashar al-Assad ordered his forces to use chemical weapons against civilians.
Obama's top national security officials were due to brief Congress on Syria later and Britain said armed action would be legal, but any intervention looked set to be delayed until UN investigators report back after leaving Syria on Saturday.
Syrian opposition sources said Assad's forces had removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect them from a Western attack, and Russia was reported to be moving ships into the region.
But expectations of imminent turmoil eased as the diplomatic process was seen playing out into next week, and the White House emphasized that any action would be "very discrete and limited," and in no way comparable to the Iraq war.
The US and its allies have "no smoking gun" proving Assad personally ordered the attack on a rebel-held Damascus neighbourhood in which hundreds of people were killed, US national security officials said.
In secret intelligence assessments and a still-unreleased report summarizing US intelligence on the alleged gas attack on Aug. 21, US agencies expressed high confidence that Syrian government forces carried out the attack, and that Assad's government therefore bears responsibility, US national security officials said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were among senior US officials expected to brief congressional leaders. Some lawmakers complained they had not been properly consulted.
While UN chemical weapons inspectors spent a third day combing the rebel-held area 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 United Nations said its team of inspectors would leave Syria on Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told Israel's Channel Two TV there would then be a "genuine attempt" to pass a Security Council resolution before another vote in the British parliament, a process he said could take some days.
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 United States, Britain and France say they can act with or without a UN Security Council resolution, which would likely be vetoed by Russia, a close ally to Assad. However, some countries are more cautious: 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.
A report from Moscow that Russia is sending 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.
The five veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council members will meet again, UN diplomats said. The five - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - held an inconclusive meeting on Wednesday to discuss a draft Security Council resolution that would authorize "all necessary force" in response to the alleged gas attack.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament it would be "unthinkable" to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the Security Council. But 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 by a veto.
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, although investors were still on edge over fears of future turmoil in the Middle East.