By Elise Labott
The United States is working to build international support for military action against Syria, essentially bypassing the United Nations, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said Wednesday.
As it mulls a possible strike against the Syrian regime in response to last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces, the sources predicted Russian opposition at the U.N. Security Council would force the United States and a coalition of states to act alone.
A draft Security Council resolution condemning Syria's alleged poison gas use, which killed hundreds of civilians, has stalled due to "intransigence," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday.
The permanent five members of the Security Council who each have veto power – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – met earlier in the day without reaching consensus.
"We see no avenue forward, given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful council action on Syria," Harf said.
Suggesting the United States and its allies would act without a U.N. mandate, Harf said, "We cannot be held up in responding by Russia's continued intransigence at the United Nations, and quite frankly the situation is so serious that it demands a response."
Britain proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution "condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad and authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians," but certain opposition by Syrian ally Russia and possibly by China doomed its chances.
None of the sources detected a change in the Russian position and did not expect the Russians to vote for a resolution. American officials suggested Russian pleas to wait for the report of U.N. inspectors was a delaying tactic. For that reason, the United States would not give the Security Council process very long.
“We know the answer we are going to get, but we are going to ask anyway,” one US official said. “We know they are not interested in coming along. But if they can drag this out and have a protracted Security Council process by looking helpful, this is in their interest.”
Although the sources said a U.N. mandate would be preferable, a limited coalition of NATO partners and some Arab League members appeared more likely to act, which would provide President Barack Obama political backing to order U.S. missile strikes.
“This is the last chance,” a Turkish official said. “The strong preference is for the U.N. Security Council to act, but if they once again fail to act, then they themselves are taking the council out of the question and there is nothing left for the international community to do but act. The official cited international intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo as precedents for the world to act without a mandate.
Britain's Parliament, meanwhile, is voting on a motion Thursday that would rule out any consideration of possible military action until the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors explain their findings to the U.N. Security Council.
After the inspectors have made their findings, members of Parliament would be required to take another vote, according to the motion being put forward."
Efforts by the Obama administration to mount international support outside of the United Nations has reaped some benefits. Major NATO partners Britain, France and Germany have called for a tough response in Syria, and a NATO statement Wednesday signaled support for action.
"Those responsible must be held accountable," the statement said. "We consider the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security."
The NATO language echoed remarks by the Obama administration that sought to justify a military response to what U.S. officials characterize as the worst chemical weapons attack since former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein launched a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
"Allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security," White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
The sources said the coalition has plenty of regional and international political cover and support for a military strike, starting with the Friends of Syria group, made up of 138 nations. Senior officials from 11 of those nations, comprised of the Syrian opposition’s strongest backers, met in Istanbul on Wednesday, where sources said they decided action must be taken to respond to what the United States has called “undeniable” use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
Next week, foreign ministers from the 22-nation Arab League are expected to pass a resolution blaming Assad for the attack, Arab officials said.
The group’s permanent representatives already pointed the blame at al-Assad in a statement Monday. On Tuesday, the Organization of Islamic Conference, made up of 57 Muslim nations, also issued a statement, stressing “the need to hold the Syrian Government legally and morally accountable” and calling on the Security Council to “take a unified position against this monstrous crime and its perpetrators, and put an end to such violations.”