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Last updated: August 29, 2013 4:20 am
The US and Britain were battling to keep their plans for a weekend military strike against Syria on track after the UN secretary-general said time was needed to investigate allegations that the regime had used chemical weapons against civilians.
As the White House and Downing Street prepared to unveil evidence setting out how they claim Syrian government forces launched chemical weapons in an attack last week, officials in London said the Security Council had a “responsibility to act” in response to the atrocity.
However, Russia, the Assad regime’s most powerful ally, argued it was premature to discuss such a resolution while UN inspectors were in Syria investigating the allegations.
On Thursday China also urged “restraint”. A statement on the foreign ministry website said: “A political solution has from the very beginning been the only way to resolve the Syria issue. External military interference runs counter to the aims of the UN charter and the basic principles of international relations, and aggravates turmoil in the situation in the Middle East.”
President Barack Obama told PBS on Wednesday that he “had made no decision” about any strike but the options that he had been given by his military would allow him to send “a pretty strong signal that (Syria) had better not do it again”.
In the first real sign of substantive congressional concern, John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, released a letter to Mr Obama demanding he explain in detail any rationale for military action ahead of an attack.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, threw a further obstacle in the way of the apparent drive by Washington and London for military action this weekend. Speaking at The Hague, he said the UN inspectors would need four more days to carry out their investigation and then time for scientific analysis before reporting back to the Security Council.
A UN spokesman, Martin Nesirky, later clarified Mr Ban’s statement, saying he was referring to a total of four days. This timetable suggests that UN inspectors, who commenced their work in Syria on Monday, but who had their work suspended on Tuesday, would need until Friday to finish their tasks.
The US and its allies say a UN veto by Russia will not stop them taking military action. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a manoeuvre to isolate Moscow and to rally a broader coalition behind air strikes.
But David Cameron, UK prime minister, was on Wednesday night compelled to back down on plans to hold a vote in the House of Commons on Thursday authorising military action in Syria after the opposition Labour leadership said more time was needed to gather evidence of chemical attacks by the Assad regime.
Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, said his Labour party, still haunted by its backing for the war in Iraq, would not support intervention in Syria until it had seen the government’s evidence.
Washington has repeatedly said Mr Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order.
William Hague, British foreign secretary, said discussions at the UN would continue over “the coming days” but suggested after a meeting of Britain’s national security body that a Security Council resolution was not essential for a “legal and proportionate” strike.
“If there isn’t agreement at the UN, we still have a responsibility on chemical weapons,” he said. “We have to confront something that’s a war crime, that’s a crime against humanity.”
Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed calls for action against the Assad regime during the country’s two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Vladimir Titov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, called the UK resolution premature and urged the Security Council to wait until the chemical weapons inspectors had delivered their report, according to the Interfax news agency.
Mr Cameron earlier tweeted: “We’ve always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that.”
Syria has denied using chemical weapons but the US, UK and France are convinced President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have deployed them.
On Wednesday the inspectors resumed their investigation into last week’s attack in which 300 people were killed. They revisited the site after being prevented from going into the area on Tuesday due to security concerns and having been shot at on their first attempt to reach the location on Monday.
If there isn’t agreement at the UN, we still have a responsibility on chemical weapons. We have to confront something that’s a war crime, that’s a crime against humanity
- William Hague, British foreign secretary
If the UN Security Council is unable to agree a stance on Syria, some western officials have suggested the discussion could move to Nato in a move reminiscent of the 1999 war in Kosovo, where a bombing campaign was carried out by the alliance without explicit UN backing.
Nato ambassadors met in Brussels on Wednesday, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, said afterwards that he believed “information available from a wide variety of sources” pointed to the Syrian regime as being responsible for the chemical weapons attack and strongly hinted the alliance was prepared to take action.
“Any use of such weapons is unacceptable and cannot go unanswered,” Mr Rasmussen said in a written statement. “Those responsible must be held accountable. We consider the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security.”
François Hollande, French president, announced that his country’s parliament would debate Syria on September 4.
Jordan, a staunch US ally, said it would not be used as a launch pad for any attacks, showing it does not want to stoke friction with its northern neighbour.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and a longtime Assad ally, was quoted by the ISNA state news agency as saying that a US strike would be “a disaster for the region”.
“The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region. The region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted,” he reportedly said.
The prospect of a strike against Syria continued to affect markets on Wednesday. Oil prices are surging, gold is also rising and stocks are falling.
US West Texas Intermediate rose to $112.24, its highest since May 2011, and Brent crude oil futures jumped to a six-month peak of $117.34 a barrel. Both prices eased in later trading but were still up more than $1 since Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Rigby in London and Monavar Khalaj in Tehran
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