US and France say support is growing for Syria strikes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 10:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 4:34pm


US Secretary of State John Kerry continues a diplomatic offensive in Europe on Sunday to win backing for military strikes in Syria, after Washington and Paris said support for action was growing.

Heading into a crucial week for US plans to launch the strikes, Kerry was to meet Arab League ministers in Paris and head to London before returning to Washington on Monday to continue rallying support at home.

The US Congress returns from its summer break on Monday to consider President Barack Obama’s plans for strikes and UN inspectors are to release a report into an alleged chemical weapons attack by the weekend.

Fighting continued to rage inside Syria, with reports that rebel forces had  taken control of the historic Christian town of Maalula, north of Damascus.

Washington accuses the Assad regime of gassing more than 1,400 people to  death in an August 21 attack outside Damascus and wants to launch punitive  strikes.

On Saturday, Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted that  international support for military action was increasing, after the EU issued a  statement calling for “strong” action against Syrian President Bashar  al-Assad’s regime.

The EU statement did not call for military action but did condemn the  ”cynical use of chemical weapons.”

Kerry said Saturday he was “encouraged” by the “very powerful statement”  made by the 28-nation bloc.

More nations were getting behind the need for military action and the  number of countries ready to take part was now in the “double digits”, he said.

Obama, who is set to address the nation on Tuesday, is facing an uphill  battle to convince a sceptical Congress -- and a war-weary US public -- of the  need for action.

According to a Washington Post survey, 224 of the current 433 House members  were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large  number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.

On Saturday, a US congressional panel posted graphic videos of what  senators were told were Syrian victims of the August attack, many of them  children.

The 13 videos were shown to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on  Thursday, according to the panel’s website.

US broadcaster CNN also aired the videos, with excerpts showing convulsing  children and men sprawled on the floor vomiting and foaming at the mouth.


Facing a ‘Munich moment’

Outlining his case in Paris in French and English, Kerry compared the situation to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which ceded control of part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.

“This is our Munich moment, this is our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement...,” said Kerry at a joint news conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

“This is not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.”

Fabius told reporters there was “wide and growing support” for action on Syria.

“Right now, seven of the eight countries in the G8 share our opinion on a strong reaction and 12 countries of the G20 also share this opinion,” he said.

Split between Britain and France, who back US-led military action, and nations reluctant to act without a United Nations mandate, the EU ministers managed to hammer out a compromise in Lithuania.

A statement read out by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton dubbed the suspected chemical attack “a war crime and a crime against humanity”.

There was “strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible,” the statement said.

“In the face of this cynical use of chemical weapons, the international community cannot remain idle.

“A clear and strong response is critical to make clear that such crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity.”

The statement called on the UN Security Council “to fulfil its responsibilities”, a reference to Russia and China’s repeated refusals to punish Assad.

In Riyadh, the Gulf Cooperation Council urged the international community to intervene immediately to “rescue” the Syrian people from “oppression”.

Pope Francis meanwhile led Catholics worldwide in a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria joined by Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

Addressing thousands of people massed for a vigil in St Peter’s Square, he called for reconciliation and peace.

Faced with a war-weary US public and little international support, Obama is bracing for an uphill battle to convince American lawmakers to back military action against Assad’s regime.

According to a Washington Post survey, 224 of the current 433 House members were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.

US broadcaster CNN aired graphic videos Saturday it said were shown to members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee in a bid to win support for a strike on Syria.

The senators were told the images depicted victims of the August 21 attack. Excerpts depicted convulsing children and men sprawled on the floor apparently vomiting and foaming at the mouth.

In France, the sole EU nation determined to join a US-led strike, the latest public opinion poll showed 68 per cent of people opposed to military action, nine percentage points up since late August.

On Sunday, Kerry will meet Arab League officials in Paris to update them on Syria -- and on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- before flying to London for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.