UN security council fails to agree on Syria action
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // Western diplomatic pressure for military action against Bashar Al Assad's Syrian regime moved to the United Nations yesterday as a British-sponsored motion urged approval of "necessary measures to protect civilians".
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council failed to reach an agreement on the motion that would authorise the use of military force against Syria. After the ambassadors met for a couple of hours at UN headquarters, the draft resolution was sent back to their governments for consultations, according to a Western diplomat.
The draft resolution had already faced a stiff test from two of the UN Security Council's five permanent members, Russia and China.
Their power of veto left western advocates of intervention with an uphill struggle to gain UN endorsement of any form of words appearing to sanction the use of force against the Assad regime.
Despite the united front of Britain and France, together with the United States, favouring targeted strikes in response to last week's chemical attack near Damascus failed to dispel fears that Europe would once again be divided by a Middle East crisis.
Germany's stance will be crucial to Europe's strategy, the EU policy chief warned.
Ahead of last night's meeting, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that attempts to impose a military solution would "lead only to further destabilisation" in Syria and the region.
Both the British prime minister, David Cameron, and the French president, Francois Hollande, believe action is justified by the brutality of an alleged chemical attack carried out in defiance of clear international agreements.
Mr Hollande talked of the need for the regime to be "punished".
For his part, Mr Cameron was said to be pondering the precise nature of the UK's response. But Downing Street said it would be lawful and "specific" to the chemical attack of August 21 that killed as many as 1,300.
Mr Al Assad denies state involvement and, in turn, accuses rebel forces of resorting to chemical warfare.
Germany's position may prove significant as the European position develops.
Berlin joined Paris in opposing the invasion of Iraq and, unlike France, abstained on the intervention that drove Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya.
But the chancellor, Angela Merkel, is said to have come under discreet pressure from Washington to become more prominently involved in international diplomacy. The US and its pro-intervention allies will have been heartened by the comments of Steffen Seibert, Mrs Merkel's spokesman, that the alleged chemical attack was "a serious breach of the international convention, which categorically bans the use of these weapons. It must be punished; it cannot remain without consequences".
However, the potential for European disunity has been highlighted by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign policy.
Baroness Ashton told reporters in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday the world needed to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. While stressing that the EU had "various options", she admitted it would be very difficult for the 28-member bloc to reach a joint conclusion.
She also warned of the importance of obtaining UN backing for military action.
Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday the Syrian government was behind the chemical weapons attack. "Information available from a wide variety of sources points to the Syrian regime as responsible for the use of chemical weapons in these attacks," Mr Rasmussen said. "Any use of such weapons is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered. Those responsible must be held accountable."
Senior British military figures are among those uneasy about plans for the imminent use of force being considered by the United States, Britain and France.
General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British army, spoke of a risk that western strikes would lead to unwanted consequences. He told the BBC: "Although undoubtedly, by any moral standards at all, using chemical weapons against your own people - which is what on the balance of probabilities it now seems Assad has done - [is wrong], this does not constitute an open invitation for the international community to impose themselves on the internal affairs of another country."
But Mr Cameron said the regime's actions were morally indefensible and added: "What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. I don't believe we can let that stand."
The US, Britain and France appear to have dismissed Mr Al Assad's protestations of innocence and concluded there is no doubt responsibility for the attack rests with the regime.
Britain is also said to be persuaded by the view that UN endorsement is not necessary to give military action legal force.
The British foreign office and the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, have studied the possibility of relying on the contentious UN "humanitarian" exemption under which strikes could be launched without a resolution.
But Britain's opposition Labour party may make UN approval a condition of its support for the coalition government when parliament is recalled to vote on the crisis today.
A Labour spokesman was quoted by British media as saying: "We have made it clear that we want to see a clear legal basis for any action. As part of the legal justification, Labour is seeking the direct involvement of the United Nations through the evidence of the weapons inspectors and consideration by the security council."
Updated: August 29, 2013 04:00 AM