Paris: US secretary of state John Kerry and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius sought to rebut the notion that their nations are alone in backing a military strike against Syria even after France joined its European counterparts in seeking a delay.
“There’s a growing consensus to take action,” Fabius said at a press conference with Kerry on Saturday in Paris. “The US and France are not isolated.”
The allies commented hours after France and other European Union (EU) members said in a statement after a foreign ministers’ meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, that action should await a United Nations (UN) report on Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons in a massacre on 21 August near Damascus.
Fabius, whose nation is the principal US partner in a possible assault against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told him that the world body’s report will be presented “very soon.”
“If the report was going to be ready in October, I’d understand concern about a delay, but that’s not the case,” Fabius said.
Kerry has said previously that nothing is to be gained by waiting for the UN findings because the evidence is overwhelming that Assad’s regime was responsible for an attack that the US says killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
Debate in Congress
Even so, release of the UN report, which is expected in about two weeks, coincides with the current schedule for the US House of Representatives to debate President Barack Obama’s request for Congress to authorize a military strike, meaning his administration will be forced to wait regardless. The Senate is scheduled to act this week.
Kerry emphasized that the EU also called on Saturday for a strong response to the chemical-weapons attack.
“The overwhelming direction of support is moving in the direction of holding Assad accountable,” said Kerry, who made most of his remarks in French in a direct appeal to European public opinion. “This is growing, not receding, in terms of the growing sense of outrage for what has happened.”
Kerry said the number of nations willing to join in a military strike is in the “double digits,” without naming any potential participants beyond France.
Kerry continues his consultations on Sunday, meeting with Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, then Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, before sitting down with Arab League foreign ministers for discussions that will focus on Mideast peace. After flying to London this afternoon, he will have dinner with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The top US diplomat said the US remains unwilling to cede a decision on action against Syria to the UN Security Council, where Russia has blocked any effort to sanction or condemn Assad’s regime.
“We’re supposed to turn away because the UN has become a tool of ideology?” Kerry said. “I don’t think so.”
The US setbacks in securing international backing for targeted strikes on Syria’s war-making capability are matched by Obama’s trouble at home in persuading Congress to authorize an American intervention.
In a fresh sign of that challenge, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who faces a re-election battle next year, said on Saturday that he opposes the US military action against Syria “at this time,” saying the Obama administration hasn’t proved “a compelling national security interest” or a clearly defined mission.
Obama plans to make his case to the US public in interviews with six television networks on Monday and in a televised address on the evening of 10 September.
The buildup toward another intervention by Western powers in the Middle East has pushed oil prices to a two-year high. West Texas Intermediate crude rose 2% to $110.53 per barrel on 6 September.
After the meeting in Vilnius, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, told reporters that the alliance underscored “the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process.”
France and Britain have both produced intelligence dossiers backing the US assertions that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack.
France, which teamed with Germany and Russia to oppose the Iraq war, emerged as the principal European voice in favour of military intervention in Syria after UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a British role was repudiated by parliament in London.
The full EU allowed only that the intelligence “seems to indicate” that Assad’s regime was the culprit in what it called a “blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity,” according to Ashton.
On arriving in Vilnius on 6 September, Fabius had said he saw no point in waiting for the UN report because “everyone knows” that chemical weapons were used and the UN won’t resolve the question of who used them. After the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, French President Francois Hollande contradicted his foreign minister, saying France will wait to hear from the UN analysts, while at the same time indicating that the report would “tell us what we all already know.”
Hollande remained on board with a possible military strike, saying it would “accelerate a political solution” to a conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead since it began in March 2011. France would arm the rebels if Congress rejects a US intervention, he said. Bloomberg
Bryan Bradley in Vilnius, Larry Liebert, David Lerman and Roger Runningen in Washington and James G. Neuger in Brussels contributed to this story.