WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: Britain voted against military intervention in Syria Thursday, possibly leaving the U.S. to act alone in sending a message to the Assad regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons last week.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government’s motion was defeated by 285 votes to 272, after a lengthy debate that revealed just how divided Parliament was over the issue. Though the vote was nonbinding, Cameron pledged not to override the decision, as one MP shouted at him to resign.
But the United States Thursday implicitly reserved the right to strike Syria, alone, in its own national interest, without waiting for allies to join an operation or for global approval.
The White House said President Barack Obama prized the United Nations and closely consulted allies, but that in the end, his first duty was to U.S. security, which he sees threatened by a Syrian chemical weapons attack.
“We certainly are interested in engaging with the global international community on this issue,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “But at the same time, the president’s chief accountability is to the American people that he was elected to protect.
“The president believes strongly in making the kinds of decisions and taking the kinds of steps that are necessary to protect our core national security interests that we’ve acknowledged are at stake in this situation.”
At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said that “we make our own decisions in our own timeline,” though styled international consultations on Syria as “incredibly important.”
The Obama administration also hinted that unlike Britain, it did not see the need to wait for a report by U.N. inspectors in Syria on the chemical attack on a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.
“It’s not within the mandate of those U.N. inspectors to assess the responsibility for the use of those weapons – it’s just within their mandate to assess whether or not they were used,” Earnest said. “That’s no longer an open question.”
Administration officials have said that Obama sees perils for U.S. national security in the belief that Syria shattered international norms by using chemical weapons and that U.S. interests and allies could be threatened.
“The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against their own people presents a situation where, yes, U.S. national security interests are threatened,” Harf said.
Syrian opposition sources said President Bashar 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. Britain sent six RAF Typhoon jets to its Akrotiri base in Cyprus, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.
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.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were among senior U.S. officials expected to brief congressional leaders later Thursday. Some lawmakers complained they had not been properly consulted.
While U.N. 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.
The U.N. said its team of inspectors would leave Syria Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
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 and France say they can act with or without a U.N. Security Council resolution, which would likely be vetoed by Russia, a close ally of Assad. However, some countries are more cautious: Italy said it would not join any military operation without Security Council authorization.
Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member council to isolate Moscow and demonstrate that other countries are behind airstrikes.
A meeting of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members ended quickly Thursday with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria’s crisis.
The meeting Thursday afternoon started breaking up after less than an hour, with the ambassadors of China, France, Britain, Russia and the United States steadily walking out.
It was the second time in two days that the five Security Council powers came out of a meeting on Syria with no progress.
Syria denies blame for the gas attacks and says they were perpetrated by rebels. Washington and its allies say the denial is not credible. Assad vowed Thursday that “ Syria will defend itself” against Western military strikes.
Western leaders are expected in Russia next Thursday for a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies, an event that could influence the timing of any strikes. The hosts have made clear their view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.
“At this stage it is necessary to take all needed actions to avert possible negative developments ... or some kind of military action regarding Syria,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told state-run Rossiya-24 television. “And that is what we ... [are] focusing our efforts on now.”
A spokesman for the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the alliance was confident Western leaders were prepared to act.
SNC leader Ahmad Jarba met French President Francois Hollande. An SNC spokesman said they discussed a two-wave intervention to first target installations used to launch chemical weapons and then hit other government bases in Syria.
“We are very happy. France and its partners are quite decided to punish the Syrian regime,” SNC envoy Monzer Makhous told Reuters after the talks. “Then there will be military aid to help the opposition to change the balance of power.”
Hollande urged Jarba to create a credible military force, highlighting Western concern that the mainstream opposition is unable to control Al-Qaeda-linked militias on the ground in Syria. Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its Al-Qaeda enemies.
In Damascus, residents and opposition forces said Assad’s forces appeared to have evacuated most personnel from army and security command headquarters in the center in preparation for Western military action.
Diplomats based in the Middle East told Reuters the removal of some of Assad’s Scud missiles and launchers from the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains, one of Syria’s most heavily militarized districts, appeared to be part of a precautionary but limited redeployment of armaments in areas of central Syria still held by Assad’s forces.