EU favors no military action yet

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The European Union called on Saturday for a “clear and strong” international response to what it said is “strong evidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was responsible for a major chemical weapons attack two weeks ago near Damascus.

But the EU statement stopped far short of endorsing a U.S. military strike —something that American officials acknowledged many of the organization's 28 members do not support.

EU foreign ministers, after listening to Secretary of State John Kerry explain the U.S. position on punishing Syria with a limited strike, indicated that no action should take place until U.N. chemical weapons inspectors release their report at least two weeks from now.

A similar delay was advocated on Friday by France's President François Hollande, whose government had said until last week that it was “ready” to participate in a U.S.-led military strike against Syria.

The European Union said it “hopes the U.N. preliminary report can be released as soon as possible and welcomes” Hollande's preference to await its results.

Kerry, speaking in a brief appearance here with Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who hosted the meeting, expressed gratitude for “support for efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for what they have done.”

While U.N. evidence of a chemical attack may allow some Europeans to feel more comfortable about a U.S. strike and nudge public opinion toward supporting it, others say no attack can take place unless the United Nations authorizes the use of force — a development that remains unlikely. China and Russia, Assad's main military and political backer, have indicated they will continue to veto any such U.N. Security Council resolution.

Linkevicius, echoing the uneasiness voiced by many European governments about military action without U.N. authorization, said in his appearance with Kerry that “those responsible should be brought to justice; we will make full use of the United Nations.”

But neither he nor others who spoke at the conference spelled out what action they would find acceptable, short of a military strike and in the absence of U.N. agreement.

“Obviously, there's a diversity of opinion in the EU,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called military action “ill-considered” and warned of “serious and tragic consequences” if it were carried out. He reiterated U.N. insistence that only the Security Council could authorize a military strike against a member state.

The Obama administration has said that its own intelligence has proved that the attack, which it said killed more than 1,400 people, took place and that Assad's forces were responsible. It has described the U.N. report, which addresses only the occurrence of a gas attack and not who launched it, as irrelevant.

Videos released

In an effort by those in Congress who back a strike to convince those opposed of the need for a military response, the Senate Intelligence Committee released to the public 13 videos showing victims of last month's alleged chemical attacks in Syria.

The videos detail what appears to be victims of the chemical attacks convulsing and foaming at the mouth. It includes graphic images of children.

But the majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Congress are lining up against President Obama's plan for military action in Syria, The Hill reported.

Of the 16 veterans of those conflicts, only Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Tom Cotton of Arkansas have publicly supported the White House plan.

In the EU meeting, the State Department official said, Kerry “made very clear that the United States has not made a decision to wait” for the inspectors' report before deciding on a military strike. But that time frame appears increasingly immaterial, in any case, because the congressional approval President Obama is seeking may take even longer, if it is ever obtained.

The Senate may vote this week on a resolution authorizing the use of military force. In the House, where only a small minority so far has said publicly it would support the measure, it remains the subject of sharp debate.

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