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White House says Obama's decision to press on or abandon military intervention will be guided by national interests
August 29, 20136:57AM ETUpdated 7:30PM ET
The White House said that it would continue to weigh possible military action in Syria after facing fresh delays Thursday, when the British parliament voted against participation and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged not to override its decision. Obama said in an interview on Wednesday that he was "certain" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was responsible for an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week, and that he and allies were weighing a military response.
"It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action," Cameron said. "I get that, and the government will act accordingly."
Cameron had said earlier that it would be legal to take military action against Syria even if the U.N. Security Council denied authorization for such action. His government's intelligence committee said it had confirmed that a chemical attack took place in Syria last week, and that intelligence suggests it is "highly likely" that government forces were responsible.
Cameron recalled parliament in an emergency session Thursday, and told lawmakers it's likely that Assad has been "testing the boundaries" with at least 14 incidents of chemical weapons use.
Cameron said, "We must do the right thing in the right way" while ensuring that any action is proportionate, legal and designed to deter the use of such weapons.
Parliament's ultimate decision to forgo military intervention will be seen as a severe rebuff for Cameron.
Nevertheless, the United States appeared resolved to press forward.
"As we've said, President Obama's decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.
"He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable."
Hayden noted that the U.S. would "continue to consult" with London, "one of our closest allies and friends."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press late Thursday that Obama was still in discussions on the timing and scope of potential action.
Engel also said administration officials told lawmakers Thursday they received intercepts of Syrian officials' communications that reportedly proved the Assad regime used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
Earlier on Thursday, envoys from the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China gathered at U.N. headquarters in New York to discuss the possibility of military intervention. The meeting was called by the Russian delegation, and ended with no statement from the participants.
A similar meeting on Wednesday ended after more than an hour with no agreement.
Obama, who had earlier made the case for a limited punishment action to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons, consulted with House Speaker John Boehner Thursday on a proposed course of action.
"It is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed," Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck said in a release issued afterward.
U.N. inspectors will be withdrawn from Syria on Saturday, when they will report the initial findings of their investigation to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Their mandate is simply to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used in the incident that left more than 300 civilians dead; they will not determine culpability for such use.
Security Council approval for military intervention remains unlikely, with Russia and China speaking out strongly against that option.
France called on allies to wait for the U.N. report on the chemical attack before committing to action. As a result, the administration is looking to support from key allies.
Security Council concerns
The U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said any international military action in Syria could be carried out only after it has been approved by the Security Council, despite the council's two-year deadlock over the issue.
A Security Council resolution drafted by the U.K. that would authorize intervention to protect Syrian civilians is almost certain to be vetoed by Russia, Syria's staunchest ally in the council, if brought to a vote. Russia, along with China, has vetoed three resolutions on Syria in the past two years.
The Security Council has begun closed consultations on Syria.
On Thursday, the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a statement that Germany and French President Francois Hollande have agreed that there must be a reaction to the suspected Syrian gas attack and that they hope for a prompt report from the U.N.
Merkel's office later put out a statement, however, saying that she and Russian President Vladimr Putin agree that the conflict can only be solved politically, while also calling on Putin to use the Security Council for a "quick, unanimous international reaction."
Tension is mounting between the Western countries that are pushing for intervention and Russia and China, which are opposed to any military action.
On Thursday, Russia's Interfax news agency said Moscow would send two ships to the eastern Mediterranean to strengthen its naval presence because of the "well-known situation" there, referring to the Syrian crisis.
The agency quoted a source in the armed forces' general staff as saying an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser would be sent in the coming days because the situation "required us to make some adjustments" in the naval force.
Russia also began evacuating its citizens from Syria.
China's foreign minister, meanwhile, urged restraint Wednesday night, saying any military intervention in the crisis would only worsen turmoil in the Middle East.
If the U.S. and its allies were to take military action in the coming days or weeks, Obama made clear that such action would not be designed to bring an end to a civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. The primary purpose of the action would be to see that no more are killed by poison gas.