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Washington - President Barack Obama made the case on Wednesday for a limited military strike against Syria in response to last week's alleged chemical weapons attack even as he faced new obstacles with British allies and US lawmakers that could delay any imminent action.
Casting the need for intervention in Syria's civil war on the basis of US national security interests instead of humanitarian grounds, Obama presented his clearest justification to war-weary Americans for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government with “international consequences”.
While saying he had not yet made a decision on military action, Obama left little doubt that the choice was not whether to act but when to retaliate for last Wednesday's alleged gas attacks, which killed hundred of people in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.
“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” Obama told PBS Newshour in a televised interview, saying it was now important to send a message that “it better not do it again”.
There were growing signs, however, that the timeline for launching any military strike on Syria could be complicated not only by the UN weapons inspectors' continued presence there but by the Obama administration's efforts to coordinate with international partners and growing demands for consultation with US lawmakers.
Britain - a key player in any air assault on Syria - changed its stance on Wednesday, saying the UN Security Council should first see findings from international weapons inspectors and the UK parliament would hold two votes before any military action is taken.
Arguing for measured intervention after long resisting deeper involvement in Syria, Obama insisted that while Assad's government must be punished, he intended to avoid repeating Washington's errors from the Iraq war.
“I have no interest in any open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable,” Obama said.
Despite opinion polls showing most Americans oppose deeper involvement in the 2-1/2-year-old Syrian conflict, Obama has been under pressure at home and abroad to enforce the “red line” against large-scale chemical weapons use he established just over a year ago.
He argued on Wednesday that a “tailored, limited” strike, not a protracted engagement like the unpopular Iraq war, could be enough to send a strong message that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated. The likeliest option, US officials said, would be to launch cruise missiles from US ships in the Mediterranean in a campaign that would last days.
Obama cited chemical weapons dangers to US Middle Eastern allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan plus US bases in the region, and said America's national interests could be at risk if Syrian chemical arms fell into the wrong hands.
Amid complaints by lawmakers that they have not been properly consulted as the president deliberates about possible military action, senior Obama administration officials plan to brief congressional leaders on Thursday on the situation in Syria, congressional aides said.
Although decisive action against Syria is strongly backed by many in the US Congress, there have been growing calls on Capitol Hill for Obama to seek congressional authorisation before ordering the use of force, something he is considered unlikely to do. But wrangling over the issue could complicate any attack timetable.
In Damascus on Wednesday, people left homes close to potential targets as US officials sketched out plans for multi-national air strikes. UN chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs searching for evidence.
But as UN chief Ban Ki-moon sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.
Syria's government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France, and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”.
Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al-Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad's foes. But the West says it must now act to stop the use of poison gas.
Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the UN Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorise military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians - a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China. The meeting ended without a decision.
The United States and its allies say a UN veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a move to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, Nato and Turkey also condemned Assad.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced on Wednesday to push back his timetable after coming under fierce domestic and international pressure.
Just a day after recalling Britain's Parliament to vote on how to respond to Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons, Cameron was ambushed when the opposition Labour Party said it wanted greater parliamentary scrutiny and rebel lawmakers in his own ruling Conservative Party said they would oppose him.
The parliamentary battle underscored the legacy of public mistrust left behind by former prime minister Tony Blair's contested decision to join the United States in going to war in Iraq in 2003.
Western armies are expected to wait until the UN experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Ban said they needed four days to complete the work. - Reuters