Brits, Iran call for evidence in Syrian attack as war looms

In London, government enthusiasm for a rapid retaliatory strike against Syrian government targets seemed to evaporate late Wednesday when British leaders, facing dissent among lawmakers, signaled that they would await the inspectors’ findings. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, aware of the sensitivities created by the Iraq war, said unexpectedly that a separate vote would be required later, possibly next week, to authorize military action.   Mr. Cameron bowed to pressure from the opposition Labour Party and to some within his own coalition who want to wait for the weapons inspectors and for the United Nations Security Council to make one more effort to give a more solid legal backing to military action against the Syrian government. His government submitted a motion for debate Thursday in Parliament.
“A United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action,” the text of the motion said, and the secretary general “should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission.”
“Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place,” the motion said.

Mr. Cameron, who heads a coalition government, is facing political difficulties from legislators mindful of events in 2003, when assurances from Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction proved to be inaccurate and a false pretext for war.

In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying that Iran, Syria’s most powerful regional backer, believed that it was necessary to “apply all efforts to prevent” military action against the authorities in Damascus. “Military action will have a big amount of costs for the region,” Iranian state television quoted Mr. Rouhani as telling President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a telephone conversation late Wednesday.
While Mr. Rouhani condemned any use of chemical weapons, he also said Iran and Russia would work to prevent any military action against Syria, which he called an “open violation” of international law, The Associated Press reported.
“Early judgment can be dangerous, before clarification” he said, referring to Western assertions that the Syrian authorities had used chemical weapons.

As regional powers maneuvered, there were media reports that warships were being deployed in the Mediterranean by Russia and France, but there was no immediate confirmation of those accounts. The United States Navy has four destroyers within striking range of Syria in the Mediterranean, all of them carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles. Attack submarines also carry Tomahawks and are assumed to be on station in the Mediterranean.

In Moscow, the news agency Interfax quoted an unidentified military source as saying Russia planned to send two warships to the Mediterranean — an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser — because of the “well-known situation.” A French frigate was reported on Thursday to have left the naval base at Toulon on the Mediterranean, but its destination was not immediately clear.

Britain said Thursday that its air force had sent six Typhoon warplanes to a British base at Akrotiri on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. But, given the government’s promise to delay direct military action, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said.

For its part, the Syrian government, which has denied accusations by a range of Western and Arab countries that it used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack, moved abruptly on Wednesday to prolong the inspectors’ visit. The authorities announced that they had evidence of three previously unreported chemical weapons assaults that they said had been carried out by insurgents and should be investigated by the inspectors.

If the inspectors look into those accusations, they could remain in Syria well past this weekend, beyond their original mandate, as differences swirling around the conflict there move into ever sharper focus. But Mr. Ban’s reported announcement that the inspectors would leave Syria by Saturday suggested that he wanted them to keep their original schedule.
The American and British governments have said that the existing evidence is persuasive that Mr. Assad’s forces used chemical munitions on civilians in the Damascus suburbs last week, committing what the Obama administration has called a moral atrocity that cannot go unanswered.

The United States could still act without the support of Britain, its closest ally, but the Obama administration has actively sought to build a consensus for a military strike. While expectations had been building that a strike could happen by the weekend, another few days may make no difference to what has been advertised as a short, sharp punishment for the use of chemical weapons.

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