Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is seen addressing
the House of Commons about launching military action
against Syria in this still image taken from video.
REUTERS/UK Parliament via Reuters TV
US President Barack Obama and his allies sought to
convince cautious lawmakers and the public of the need to
strike Syria although officials have 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 on Thursday (local time), 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
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 later on Thursday. 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
The United Nations said its team of inspectors would leave
Syria on Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban
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
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 on Thursday afternoon, 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 on Thursday,
although investors were still on edge over fears of future
turmoil in the Middle East.
"SHOT ACROSS THE BOW"
Obama sought to win over a war-weary American public on
Wednesday evening by saying intervention in Syria, where more
than 100,000 people have been killed in two and a half years
of civil war, would serve US national security interests.
"If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited
way, we send a shot across the bow saying, 'Stop doing this,'
this can have a positive impact on our national security over
the long term," he told "PBS Newshour" in a televised
While saying he had not yet made a decision on military
action, Obama left little doubt the choice was not whether
but when to punish Syria for the gas attacks.
"We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried
these out," he said on Wednesday evening.
Syria denies blame for the gas attacks and says they were
perpetrated by rebels. Washington and its allies say the
denial is not credible.
According to the US national security officials, evidence
that forces loyal to Assad were responsible goes beyond the
circumstantial to include electronic intercepts and some
tentative scientific samples from the site.
"This was not a rogue operation," one US official said.
G20 TO MEET IN RUSSIA
Western leaders are expected in Russia next Thursday for a
meeting of the Group of 20 big 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 opposition was
confident Western leaders were prepared to act.
SNC leader Ahmed 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
"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 centre in
preparation for Western military action.
People unable to decide whether to leave for neighbouring
Lebanon said the border was already jammed.
"We're hearing people are spending hours - like 12 or 14
hours - waiting in line at the border," said Nabil, who was
considering leaving town for Beirut with his wife and young
daughter, "just until the strike is over."
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.
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.
Arguing for measured intervention after long resisting deeper
involvement in Syria, Obama insisted that while Assad's
government must be punished, he intended to avoid repeating
US errors from the Iraq war.
"I have no interest in any open-ended conflict in Syria, but
we do have to make sure that when countries break
international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that
could threaten us, that they are held accountable," Obama
The likeliest option, US officials say, would be to launch
cruise missiles from US ships in the Mediterranean in a
campaign that would last days.