West seeks global backing for strike on Syria

But US and allies are on a collision course with China and Russia over action after gas attack

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 9:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 2:38am

The US and its allies are looking beyond the divided UN Security Council to legitimise military action against Syria, trying to build a cohesive rationale for a strike and win broad international backing.

The council was set for a showdown over Syria yesterday after Britain sought authorisation for Western military action that Russia called premature.

With UN chemical weapons inspectors heading for the second time to the Damascus site of an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleaded for them to be given time to complete their mission.

But the United States and European and Middle East allies have already pinned the blame on President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Even if Russia blocks UN approval, US-led air or missile strikes on Syria look all but certain.

That has set Western leaders on a collision course with Moscow, Assad's main arms supplier, as well as with China, which also has a veto in the Security Council and disapproves of what it sees as a push for Iraq-style "regime change" - despite US denials that President Barack Obama aims to overthrow Assad.

Even before the UN meeting, Russia signalled its opposition to immediate action over the alleged chemical strike. "It would be premature, at the least, to discuss any Security Council reaction until the UN inspectors working in Syria present their report," Interfax quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov as saying.

Despite the possibility of another veto from Russia and China, Britain said it would put forward a resolution to the Security Council condemning the Syrian government for the alleged chemical attack.

Ahead of the meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the country's National Security Council unanimously backed action against Syria.

"The NSC agreed unanimously that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was unacceptable - and the world should not stand by," Cameron said on Twitter after a meeting of the high-level security body.

The task at hand for any US-led coalition for military action will be to win the support of key international organisations outside the United Nations.

One path may be persuading Nato to get involved or even lead any military action. That helped the Clinton administration cast a frame of legitimacy on the Kosovo war in the late 1990s even though the Security Council, with Russia firmly opposed, never sanctioned the bombing campaign against Belgrade, said Ken Pollack, an expert on Middle East political-military affairs at the Brookings Institute.

"Very famously, the Kosovo war was not legal," Pollack said. "Yet ... you don't have people running around screaming that the Kosovo war was illegal. That is because the US did a good job of building a case for it."

A US-led coalition is likely to invoke an international doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect, which states that the international community has an obligation to act to prevent crimes against humanity no matter where they occur, said Stephen Biddle, an expert on US military and foreign policy at George Washington University. Biddle said the doctrine is increasingly perceived as superceding the need to respect a country's sovereignty.

The US is planning to release information, based on intercepted communications, that it said would directly link Assad to the attack.

A magazine reported yesterday that US intelligence services overheard a Syrian defence ministry official in "panicked phone calls with the leader of a chemical weapons unit", demanding answers for a nerve agent strike.

"Those conversations were overheard by US intelligence services," Foreign Policy magazine said.

"That is the major reason why American officials now say they're certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime - and why the US military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days."

Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse