London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The US-led attempt to launch a military strike against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in response to an alleged nerve agent attack in Damascus on August 21 suffered a major setback last night as the UK Parliament defeated a motion permitting the government to consider involving British troops in Syria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was unable to rally support for military action in Syria, losing a costly parliamentary vote. Cameron vowed to respect the will of parliament, confirming that the involvement of UK troops in any military action on Syria was completely off the table.
Despite the loss, the British prime minister pledged a “robust response” to the use of chemical weapons. He said: “We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organisations we are members of—whether the EU, or Nato, or the G8 or the G20—to condemn what’s happened in Syria.”
US President Barack Obama is continuing the push toward Western military engagement in Syria despite the UK’s withdrawal.
The US Congress Intelligence committee demanded more evidence linking the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or any of his senior aides to the alleged chemical attack that killed around 350 civilians in Syria last week.
Many US lawmakers remain adamant that the Assad regime was behind the attack, calling for military action to deter the use of chemical weapons.
However more than 200 members of Congress have signed letters to the president demanding that congressional authorization be obtained for any military strike against Syria.
Still undecided about whether to take a military step in Syria or not, Obama appears to be convinced that the regime is responsible for what happened.
“We have looked at all the evidence and we don’t believe the opposition possessed…chemical weapons of that sort,” he said. “We do not believe given the delivery system using rockets that the opposition could have carried out these attacks.”
He added: “I have gotten options with our military, had extensive conversations with my national security team.”
France, the third country in the US-UK-France triad that was expected to lead any military action in Syria, is not expected to make a final decision regarding military action until after debates are held in the National Assembly and Senate next Wednesday, September 4.
In an interview with Le Monde published today, August 30, French president François Hollande maintained that France “is ready” to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and will “decide its position in conjunction with its allies.”
Sources in the French presidency told Asharq Al-Awsat that the objectives of the strike have not changed, and that any military step would aim to punish the Assad regime for the use of neurotoxic agents, and also potentially to weaken Assad’s military strength and thus compel the regime to come to the negotiating table at Geneva II.
French sources speaking on the condition of anonymity told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Paris is still contacting all sides including Russia,” adding that the “West is not afraid of Moscow’s reaction.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel has also been in contact with Russia, with Die Zeit saying that she telephoned Russian president Vladimir Putin last night to ask him to “rethink” Russian policy towards Syria.
Meanwhile, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has reportedly told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper that he “does not envision” German military participation in Syria, in an interview scheduled to be published tomorrow.
In a press conference following a meeting with French President Hollande on Thursday, Syrian National Coalition (SNC) head Ahmed Al-Jarba reassured the Syrian people that any Western military strike against Syria will only “target this criminal [Assad] and the killing machine that is destroying us.”
Jarba’s comments addressed fears among ordinary Syrians over how wide-ranging any Western military strike would be, as reports emerged that people are leaving their homes in areas thought to be likely targets for foreign military forces.
The head of the main Syrian opposition group also said that military intervention in Syria by Western powers is a “moral responsibility” and will be a “game changer,” adding that the UK’s decision not to participate in the strike should not stop other allies from taking action.
Meanwhile, Russian state-owned media has reported that a missile cruiser and an anti-submarine vessel are being deployed to the eastern Mediterranean. There has been intense speculation that the additional naval capacity is intended to support the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, a Russian ally, although the Russian Navy has said that the deployment is part of routine operations.
Another of Syria’s close allies, Iran, has also spoken out against possible military intervention in Syria. In comments widely carried on Iranian state TV, President Hassan Rouhani said that Russia and Iran would “cooperate” to defend Syria.
Despite the tense international situation, embattled Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad appears to be calm and defiant.
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted him as saying that “Syria will defend itself against any aggression” during a meeting with a Yemeni delegation on Thursday.
Assad added that he remains determined to “eliminate terrorism.” The Syrian regime habitually refers to groups fighting against Assad’s rule as “terrorists.”
The Syrian president told the Yemeni delegation, comprised of MPs and political figures, that the West and Israel have utilized these “terrorists” to “serve their interests in fragmenting the region.”