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Western allies hedge on strike against Syria

U.N. chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples collected from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack while escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts investigating an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus made a second trip across the front line to take samples.

Mohamed Abdullah/REUTERS

Political pressure at home and on the world stage is slowing Western moves to launch military strikes against Syria.

In the United States, some lawmakers called for consultation; at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked for more time for inspectors to report on the chemical weapons attacks that killed hundreds last week; and in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to accede to opposition demands that he wait for the UN inspectors' report, then hold a Commons vote, before Britain takes part in military strikes.

In Canada, the government again expressed its support for military action – but Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada might not play a military role because it probably lacks the weapons to contribute to the kind of short, sharp campaign of missile strikes that is expected.

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"We haven't made the decision to be part, and don't know whether we have the capacity to be part of any military engagement – which by all accounts will be limited in focus," Mr. Baird said after meeting Syrian opposition leaders and Syrian-Canadian representatives in Montreal.

Precisely what the U.S. and its allies will do remains undecided, according to President Barack Obama. He said Wednesday night that he is not seeking wholesale entry into Syria's civil war, but that it's a question of sending a signal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about chemical weapons attacks.

"We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out, and if that's so, then there need to be international consequences," Mr. Obama said an interview with the PBS News Hour. "I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria."

But while Mr. Obama and his allies are seeking to build support for a punitive strike, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague argued they must not be delayed too long, both the United States and Britain faced pressure to take a pause and slow the process.

Most notably, Britain's Mr. Cameron, a gung-ho advocate of military action, was forced to give in to opposition demands as some of his own Conservative MPs, raising uneasy memories of Britain's entry into the Iraq war a decade ago, threatened to rebel. Mr. Obama's most important ally committed to wait for a UN inspectors' report that is not expected until next week, possible delaying an allied strike.

Those UN inspectors returned to Damascus suburbs Wednesday for a second day of efforts to determine what caused the deaths of hundreds on Aug. 21 – even though the U.S., Britain, and Canada all say it is already clear that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

The UN Secretary-General speaking in the Hague, urged members of the Security Council to allow more time for inspectors to complete their work, and then for members of the council to work together. "Give peace a chance, give diplomacy a chance, stop fighting and start talking," he said.

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Britain has already drafted a resolution asking the Security Council to approve military action against Syria, even though Mr. Hague acknowledged it is unlikely to be passed because Russia, a veto-holding member, opposes military action. The five permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – held a closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss the resolution, without reaching a decision.

Britain's resolution, however, is intended to serve as part of the allies' political case for striking without a UN mandate: to make the case that it sought Security Council approval to respond to a violation of international law, but was stymied.

In Canada, Mr. Baird agreed with that assessment, saying that Russia had for more than two years blocked simple condemnation of the Assad regime, so it is unlikely to approve military action now.

But Mr. Baird, rebuffing opposition calls for a parliamentary debate on potential military action, suggested Canada might not be able to play a military role if, as many expect, the U.S. and its allies launch a series of strikes by ship-based cruise missiles. Canada only has no planes in the region, and only one warship – HMCS Toronto – in the Arabian Sea.

"It's clear that Canada does not have a great deal of weaponry in the region. And, obviously, we don't have a military with cruise missiles or armed drones," Mr. Baird said.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More


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