US seeks allies as UK shuns Syria action in shock vote
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Barack Obama sought international allies for military action against Syria on Friday after British MPs voted against intervention in a stunning defeat for Prime Minister David Cameron, leaving the US president isolated both abroad and at home.
The United States is still seeking an "international coalition" in response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, despite a vote against military action by British MPs, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday.
"Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together," Hagel told a news conference after the British lower house ruled out participation in any punitive strikes against Syria's regime with a shock vote late on Thursday.
Hagel said Washington respected the British parliament's stance. "Every nation has a responsibility to make its own decisions," Hagel said during a visit to The Philippines. "We are continuing to consult with the British as with all of our allies.”
Asked if there was anything Syria could do to prevent possible US military action, Hagel said he could not speculate on hypothetical situations. "I have not been informed of any change in the Assad regime's position on any issue. I deal with the reality with what we have," he said at a joint news conference with his Philippine counterpart.
US officials suggested that President Barack Obama would be willing to proceed with limited actions against Syria even without specific promises of allied support because US national security interests are at stake.
“President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement after the British vote. “He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”
Despite opinion polls showing most Americans oppose deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict, Obama has been under pressure to enforce a “red line” against chemical weapons use, which he declared just over a year ago.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said key ally Washington would be disappointed that Britain “will not be involved,” though he added, “I don’t expect that the lack of British participation will stop any action.”
But he told BBC television, “It’s certainly going to place some strain on the special relationship,” referring to ties with Washington.
FRANCE 24’s Lorna Shaddick said that for some in Washington the UK vote had transformed the country from “one of the US’s most dependable allies to something of a complicating factor” for Obama.
“Both internationally and domestically Obama is looking more isolated and will certainly be finding his decision on Syria a more difficult one to make,” she said. “Internationally he’s seen to be going against international opinion and domestically, members of congress are now demanding the same vote as in the UK.”
France, which now has a stronger hand to play in the debate than the UK, said openly on Thursday for the first time that the French military is preparing for a possible operation, but stopped short of announcing armed intervention.
President François Hollande, who does not need parliamentary approval to launch an attack, urged for a political solution rather than a military one. “We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration,'' Hollande said after meeting Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.
Lawmakers and public uneasy
In the US, officials have been trying to garner the support of lawmakers, many of which have expressed opposition to an intervention. High-level officials held a 90-minute teleconference with lawmakers on Thursday evening to explain why they believe Bashar al-Assad’s government was the culprit in last week’s suspected chemical attack, but provided no new evidence.
It remained to be seen whether any sceptics were swayed by the call, given the expectation in advance that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
Representative Eliot Engel, who participated in the teleconference, said the UK vote was raised during the call, and “the response was that the president will do what he feels is in the best interests of the American people regardless of what other countries may or may not do”.
After the 90-minute briefing, some lawmakers said the administration still had work to do to convince the public.
“The president is going to have to make his case to the American people before he takes any action,” said Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
But any intervention looked set to be delayed until UN investigators report back after leaving Syria on Saturday. The UK vote saw expectations of imminent turmoil ease further.
The parliamentary vote seemed to reflect deep misgivings stemming from Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was massively opposed by the British public and left the government shame-faced when US claims of weapons of mass destruction – supposed to justify the intervention – fell through.
The White House emphasised on Thursday that any action would be “very discreet and limited,” and in no way comparable to the Iraq war.
US administration and defence officials have said in recent days the most likely move would be the launch of cruise missiles from ships off the Syrian coast in a campaign that would last days.
Several US naval ships have been making their way to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in recent days, while two French anti-air frigates were heading in the same direction. France also has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)