(Updates with congressional briefing, U.S. intelligence assessment in sixth, seventh paragraphs, congressional letter in final two paragraphs. See EXTRA for more on Syrian conflict.)
Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The prospect of an imminent attack on Syria faded as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, the U.S.’s top ally, struggled to win parliamentary backing for military strikes that critics said echoed the push to war in Iraq.
Britain released an assessment showing it “highly likely” the Syrian government was behind the mass killing of civilians with chemical weapons on Aug. 21 near Damascus. Still, Cameron bowed to opposition demands to await a judgment by onsite United Nations inspectors. The Obama administration is also laboring to marshal conclusive evidence backing its assertion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for the attack, said three intelligence officials familiar with the situation.
Memories of the invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence of an Iraqi stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, are slowing efforts by the U.S. and the U.K. to rally support for strikes against Syria to halt the regime’s use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war, which the UN estimates has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
“This is not like Iraq,” Cameron said in a House of Commons debate today. “What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. We’re not invading a country.”
Opposition leader Ed Miliband, while not ruling out military strikes, warned against following “an artificial timetable or a political timetable set elsewhere.”
Britain’s debate resonated across Europe and in the U.S., where Obama’s top advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, were scheduled to give a conference call briefing to congressional leaders and key members of committees dealing with national security. It won’t include a classified analysis of the chemical weapons attack by intelligence agencies.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the classified assessment “has not been finalized as of this moment.” The administration still plans to publicly release “before the end of the week” an unclassified version of the intelligence assessment, he said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, the three U.S. officials said intercepted Syrian communications provide no ironclad evidence that Assad or members of his inner circle ordered the attack. Two of them said the intercepts indicate that he didn’t know about it in advance and demanded that his subordinates explain what had happened.
While the officials said Assad’s communications could be deliberate deception to evade responsibility for the attack, they added that using chemical weapons at a time when the regime’s forces were regaining the upper hand made no military or political sense. The messages leave open the possibility that a lower-ranking official could have ordered the attack, which they said appears to have been launched by the Syrian Army’s Fourth Armored Division, commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher.
Britain’s intelligence assessment was hedged. It found “no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility” for last week’s chemical attack. What remains unclear, the assessment said, is Assad’s “precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time.”
UN weapons experts, central to the endgame over Iraq a decade ago, loomed as critical to the decision over war and peace with Syria as well. A UN mission will continue to inspect the site of the chemical attack tomorrow, leave Syria by early Aug. 31 “and report to me as soon as they come out,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Vienna today.
Russia called for a meeting later today of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
With British politicians hinging their ultimate decision on the presentation of the probe to the Security Council, the timetable for a strike stretched into or beyond the weekend.
Advocates of a military response, scarred by the experience of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, have defined the war aims narrowly. Both the U.S. and U.K. say they are focused on halting the use of chemical weapons, not ousting Assad.
Four days after saying that U.S. forces were ready to act when ordered, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the need to put together a coalition to take on Assad. Speaking to reporters in Brunei today, Hagel said, “If any action would be taken against Syria, it would be an international collaboration.”
Investors’ concerns about an immediate clash subsided after Middle Eastern stocks plunged earlier this week and the risk premium that traders demand to hold bonds from the region rose. West Texas Intermediate oil, which jumped to the highest level in more than two years this week, fell as much as 1.4 percent today.
The U.S. has warships and submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles on standby in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Navy decided yesterday to keep the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region instead of returning it to Washington State as planned, according to a U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified discussing the move.
Assad told Syrians today he will defend them against “threats of a direct aggression.” In comments reported on state television, he accused Western powers and Israel of seeking to wreak havoc in the Middle East.
Syria’s conflict is increasingly dividing the Middle East, which produces about a third of the world’s oil, along sectarian lines and has pitted the U.S., the U.K. and France against China and Russia in the UN Security Council.
Russia, a staunch Assad ally, said today the UN probe should be widened to include other reports of chemical use in Syria. Russia has signaled it will veto a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.
Another Syrian ally, Iran, warned that Israel will be sucked into any wider Syrian war. U.S. allies in the region, including Sunni Muslim nations Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support the rebels in Syria and are calling for action against Assad.
In London, a Conservative Party rebellion forced Cameron to abandon a plan to seek parliamentary approval tonight for immediate strikes. He was forced to hold two votes, the first, scheduled for 10 p.m., on the principle of intervening and the second, after the UN report, on whether Britain would join in airstrikes.
A poll of Britons by YouGov Plc published yesterday found respondents opposed missile strikes against Syria by two to one. In the U.S., a survey before last week’s incident found more backing for attacks on Assad’s forces, as long as American lives weren’t in danger. The July survey by Quinnipiac University found 49 percent of Americans would back such strikes with 38 percent against.
There are signs of doubts among U.S. politicians about a Syria strike as well. More than 100 lawmakers in the U.S. House, including 18 Democrats, signed a letter yesterday saying Syria doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and calling on Obama to seek congressional approval before making any military move.
“I see no convincing evidence that this is an imminent threat to the United States of America,” Representative Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat who signed the letter, said. “We have our own huge problems in this country.”
--With assistance from Ladane Nasseri and Dana El Baltaji in Dubai, Gopal Ratnam, Margaret Talev, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Nicole Gaouette and Tony Capaccio in Washington, Mark Deen, Kitty Donaldson, Robert Hutton and Thomas Penny in London, Ben Holland in Istanbul, Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow, Sangwon Yoon in United Nations and Sharon Chen in Singapore. Editors: John Fraher, Eddie Buckle