Britain rules out military action in Syria
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday prepared for the possibility of unilateral military action against Syria within days as Britain opted out in a stunning vote by Parliament.
Facing skepticism at home, too, the administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people and must be punished.
Despite roadblocks in forming an international coalition, Obama appeared undeterred, and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
“The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Invoking the specter of the Iraq War, British lawmakers rejected military action against Syria, dealing a shocking blow to Prime Minister David Cameron.
After a marathon eight-hour debate, Cameron lost a vote that was initially seen as a symbolic motion setting up a final vote in the days ahead authorizing force against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. But the surprise loss of even the weaker piece of legislation — by a vote of 285 -272, including a group of rebels from Cameron's Conservative Party in opposition — appeared to signal what analysts called the biggest rupture in the U.S.-British “special relationship” since the 1982 Falklands War.
Technically, Cameron could still authorize military strikes over the objection of Parliament, but top government officials — including the prime minister himself — indicated that was not an option.
“It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said after losing the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”
For Cameron, it was the most powerful setback of his premiership. One lawmaker shouted “resign” as the vote was read out.
The door, observers said, could be open to indirect military cooperation, including intelligence-sharing. But any direct military involvement — such as British missiles being launched into Syria — now appeared largely out of question.
Even before the vote in London, the United States was preparing to act without formal authorization from the United Nations, where Russia has blocked efforts to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force, or from Capitol Hill. But the United State had expected Britain, a major ally, to join in the effort.
Top U.S. officials spoke with certain lawmakers for more than 90 minutes in a teleconference evening to explain why they believe Assad's government was the culprit in a suspected chemical attack last week. Lawmakers from both parties have been pressing Obama to provide a legal rationale for military action and specify objectives, as well as to lay out a firm case linking Assad to the attack.
A number of lawmakers raised questions in the briefing about how the administration would finance a military operation as the Pentagon grapples with automatic spending cuts and reduced budgets.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a participant on the call, said in a statement that the administration presented a “broad range of options” for dealing with Syria but failed to offer a single plan, timeline, strategy or explanation of how it would pay for any military operation.
It remains to be seen whether any skeptics were swayed by the call, given the expectation in advance that officials would hold back classified information to protect intelligence sources and methods.
“The main thing was that they have no doubt that Assad's forces used chemical weapons,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a supporter of Obama's course, said after the briefing.
But he said the officials did not provide much new evidence of that.
“They said they have (intercepted) some discussions and some indications from a high-level official,” he said, and that they possess intelligence showing material being moved in advance of the attack.
He called the tone “respectful. There was no shouting. No one was accusing the administration of doing anything wrong.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the briefing “reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential U.S. response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.