U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the United States will continue to seek an international coalition in response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, despite opposition by British lawmakers to any military action.
"Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together," Hagel said in Manila Friday, after Britain's lower house of Parliament rejected a motion for British participation in a military strike. The non-binding vote is a setback to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told lawmakers a military strike would be a response to a war crime, not an attempt to topple the Syrian government.
Reacting to the British vote, Hagel said, “First, every nation has the responsibility to make their own decisions. And we respect that with any nation. We are continuing to consult with the British as we are with all of our allies and partners. And that consultation includes ways forward, together on a response to this weapons attack in Syria."
Asked what Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, could do to avoid a military strike, the U.S. defense secretary responded he has "not been informed of any change in the Assad regime's position on any issue."
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said the British vote will not affect his country's position on Syria. In an interview with Le Monde
newspaper, he said he does not favor international action merely to overthrow the government, but a chemical assault must not go unpunished.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief foreign policy aide said the British decision shows that "people are beginning to understand" the dangers of a military strike.
Germany also appears to be backing away from any military intervention in Syria. Government officials say a military commitment has not been requested and is not being considered.
The White House could make public on Friday a declassified version of an intelligence report on an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Members of Congress who were briefed by senior administration officials on Thursday say there is no doubt the Syrian government carried out the deadly attack near Damascus, last week.
Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York said the U.S. officials cited intercepted communications between senior Syrian officials. He also said intelligence showed the Syrians moved materials around in advance of a chemical strike.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have asked the White House for the legal justification and objectives for a military strike on Syria.
President Barack Obama is still deciding how to respond to Syria. A military strike against the Assad government appears to be the most likely course of action.
Syria denies carrying out a chemical attack and accuses the rebels of using such weapons on Syrian soldiers.
UN inspectors winding down Syria probe
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged world powers to hold off on possible military action until a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team completes its work in the country.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq on Thursday said the team investigating the August 21 attack near Damascus would leave the country by Saturday morning. While some will remain in Europe to analyze their samples, Haq said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane and other inspectors will be in New York in the coming days to brief Mr. Ban.
“They will have a large number of facts at their disposal, they’ve collected considerable amount of evidence - evidence through samples, evidence through witness interviews -- they can construct from that a fact-based narrative that can get at the key facts of what happened,” he said.
Once laboratory results are in, the team will issue a final report. Haq said, “It is imperative that the work that the investigation team does be seen by all as fair, impartial and accurate.”
Also Thursday, Russia called a meeting of the other permanent members of the Security Council. Talks with Britain, China, France and the United States lasted about 45 minutes, but diplomats did not brief reporters on what transpired. On Wednesday, the group met to discuss a resolution proposed by Britain that would authorize “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.
China and Russia have blocked previous attempts at the U.N. to impose sanctions on President Assad’s regime. That has led to frustration for the U.S. and its European allies.
On Wednesday, Deputy U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that despite Russian opposition to a U.N. authorization of force in Syria, Washington will take its own “appropriate actions to respond in the days ahead.”
Other nations react to possible military strike
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said his government and Russia will work to prevent an attack on Syria, and warned any assault could “bring great costs” to the region.
Iran also has warned that any Western action against Syria would result in the “imminent destruction of Israel,” a U.S. ally in the region.
Also Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government supports Washington and its other allies contemplating a military response to Syria. He said, however, the Canadian military would not take a role in any attack.
In Tokyo, Japan's chief Cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan's Cabinet members are in agreement that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated under any circumstance and responsibility for their use lies with the Assad government. Japan, a close American ally, has constitutional restraints on joining any military action. But Suga says Japan will provide humanitarian assistance, especially to refugees displaced by the fighting inside Syria.
The United Nations and aid groups report new refugee flows to neighboring countries: already more than 2 million Syrians have fled, half of them children.
In Syria, opposition activists say there is heavy shelling, on Friday in suburban Damascus.
VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report from Bangkok. Marissa Melton and Sam Verma contributed from Washington.
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