British deliberations slow rush to attack Syria for chemical weapons use

McClatchy Foreign StaffAugust 29, 2013 

— United Nations weapons inspectors said Thursday that they would be ready to leave their investigation of possible chemical weapons use in Syria on Saturday, while British lawmakers appear to need at least into next week to gather enough votes in Parliament to authorize United Kingdom involvement.

The British Joint Intelligence Organisation has concluded that chemical weapons were used in a Damascus suburb on August 21 and that the Syrian regime used the weapons.

"There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility," the report says.

The release came as British Prime Minister is working to convince Parliament, including an estimated 70 members of his own party, that there is cause for British military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Unnamed intelligence officials tell the Associated Press that the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons is "not a slam dunk," evoking a phrase used to describe the certainty expressed by President George W. Bush's administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before invading that country.

Meanwhile, Russia announced that it is adding two ships -- a missile carrying cruiser and a large anti-sub ship -- to its eastern Mediterranean fleet.

And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “Russia and Iran steadfast in conviction that #Syrian crisis must be resolved only through diplomatic means #dialogue.”

The Russian government did not officially tie the ship movement to the crisis in Syria, though the Foreign Ministry Thursday released a statement saying that “plans of carrying out a military blow on Syria declared by several governments represent an open challenge to several key principals of the United Nations charter and international law.”

The statement went on to say that supporting the United Nations investigation must be the highest priority, and that there were no alternatives to a diplomatic solution.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated his warning that military actions at this point “would lead to a further destabilizing of the region.”

In Israel, concerns about the pending military actions and possible Syrian reaction prompted officials to agree to keep a gas mask distribution center open late to meet the high demand.

An estimated 70 members of the United Kingdom’s ruling majority in Parliament are expected to vote against authorizing military action against Syria. It’s a move that is expected to delay any possible action until after the Labor Day weekend in the United States, and leaves British Prime Minister David Cameron a few days to appease his American allies and convince his normally staunch supporters that Syria is just cause for the British military.

The working assumption in European capitals is that President Barack Obama prefers to launch what is reportedly expected to be a two-day bombing campaign before the weekend. But, hoping for the aid and political cover of a wider coalition, he is willing to wait until Tuesday.

The largest of the British opposition parties, Labour, has already shown no interest in backing military action unless more control of the situation is given to the U.N. An unnamed government source in the Times of London dismissed Labour’s leader in Parliament, Ed Miliband, saying the U.K. leadership does not take him seriously and "he's got no chance" of building an alliance with the U.S.

So the question is whether waiting until next week is enough time for Cameron to win over his Tory party. It’s unclear, as the question he’s being asked isn’t whether Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime possible use of chemical weapons is a bad thing, so much as why attacking that regime is in the best interests of British citizens.

As one Tory member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, tweeted: “400,000 foreigners living on benefits…It is this, not Syria, we should sort out.”

Another Tory Party member tweeted that he was “Likely to support” Cameron in an initial vote, but only because that initial motion “recognizes UN authority, focused on chemical weapons/humanitarian issues & doesn't mandate force.”

Jonathan Landay and Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this story.

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