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Kerry attempts to sell Syria intervention in Europe
US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Lithuania Saturday at the start of a four-nation European diplomatic trip aimed at boosting international support for a military intervention on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his European counterparts Saturday in a bid to boost support for military strikes against Syria after last week’s G20 summit exposed a bitter international divide on the issue.
Kerry is holding talks with the European Union’s 28 foreign ministers in Lithuania, which currently holds the EU’s rotating chair. Later on Saturday, he flies to France – the only European country ready to cooperate in military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following the British parliamentary vote against military involvement in Syria.
The US secretary of state’s European trip was originally scheduled to bolster European and Arab support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But one of the most intractable Middle East issues has once again taken a backseat as the Syrian crisis dominates international attention.
Syria also overshadowed the G20 summit, which ended Friday in St. Petersburg with the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stating that a military intervention in Syria without UN approval would be "outside the law ".
Putin also said Russia would "help Syria" if the US were to strike, pointing to existing military, economic and humanitarian cooperation.
Moscow’s veiled warning is likely to be carefully scrutinised thousands of miles away in the US, where US President Barack Obama has been attempting to sell a military intervention to a sceptical, war-weary nation ahead of next week’s Congressional vote.
Addressing reporters at the end of the G20 summit Friday, Obama said the world could not "stand idly by" after the Assad regime allegedly killed more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
But Obama admitted he faced an uphill battle convincing the international community and Congress on the need for punitive strikes against the Assad regime. “I knew this was going to be a heavy lift,” he said.
Hollande backtracks, catches his foreign minister off-guard
The extent of the challenge was highlighted in St. Petersburg when French President François Hollande – Obama’s staunchest supporter on Syria – appeared to reverse his charge-ahead position on Friday, saying that before committing France to military action, he would wait for UN weapons inspectors to issue their report.
“There was never a question that France would intervene by itself,” Hollande told reporters at the end of the summit. “It makes sense to wait for Congress and the inspectors’ report. Once those pieces of information are in hand, I will address the nation and I will make a decision.”
Hollande’s reversal was significant since the publication of the UN report is likely to take weeks and will not assess whether Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.
The French president’s announcement appeared to catch even his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, off-guard. Earlier on Friday, Fabius told EU foreign ministers meeting in Lithuania that there was no need to wait for the UN report since it would simply confirm what was already known – that chemical weapons attack had occurred – but would not say who was responsible.
No unity within the G20 or the EU
France was one of four European nations – including Britain, Italy and Spain – that signed a statement at the G20 meeting calling for a "strong international response" to the August 21 chemical attack.
The statement said the response would "send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated".
Eleven nations signed the statement – including Australia, Canada, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US.
All but Spain are members of the G20. That left 10 G20 member nations who did not sign up to the statement – including the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries.
The only European G20 nation not to sign the statement was Germany, an omission that highlights the lack of unity within the EU – a discord Kerry is set to address during his meetings in Europe in the next few days.
Following his visit to Paris, Kerry will make a stop in London, where he is expected to meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday before returning to Washington for a crucial week in the Obama administration’s build-up to a possible military intervention in Syria.