Kerry rallies EU for action in Syria

Foreign policy chief agrees Assad regime responsible for chemical attack, but says no military strike before UN report

Secretary of State John Kerry (R) is welcomed by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sep. 7, 2013.
AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Lithuania Saturday to rally support from the European Union for limited, punitive military strikes against Syria, after the G-20 summit failed to resolve bitter divisions between Washington and Moscow the day before.

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, agreed with U.S. allegations that an Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus was perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, but said that no military action should be taken before the release of a U.N. inspector’s report.

The government "is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and the means of their delivery in a sufficient quantity," Ashton told reporters after meeting with EU foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.

The ministers agreed, she said, that the world "cannot remain idle" and said a clear and strong response was needed to prevent any future use of chemical weapons.

Kerry welcomed Ashton's remarks.

"We are very grateful for the statement that came out of the meeting today with respect to Syria -- a strong statement about the need for accountability," Kerry said after the meeting, which he also attended.

Prior to Kerry’s trip, State Department officials specified in a statement to the press that the Obama administration's proposed military action would not aim to oust Assad, but deter the further use of chemical weapons in the country’s two-year civil war.

Washington has provided “material support” to opposition leaders and rebel fighters “for months,” they said, in an attempt to sway the conflict’s outcome.

Sharp divisions

Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of the conflict in Syria

The EU is sharply divided on the issue of Syria, and Ashton said ministers stopped short of lending support to military action.

Only France has said it is ready to take part in military action. Britain, whose parliament voted against participating in a strike, and Denmark have expressed support for action.

France was one of four European nations -- with Britain, Italy and Spain -- that signed a statement on Friday at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg calling for a "strong international response" to the chemical attack.

The statement, signed by 11 of the G-20 nations, but not by Germany, said the response would "send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated". It did not specify military action and European diplomats said the language remained unclear.

President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin failed to resolve their differences at the summit. Russia and Syria have a long-running historical partnership, Al Jazeera’s Peter Sharp reported in a recent broadcast.

Obama said on Friday that the world could not "stand idly by," but Putin warned that it would be "outside the law" to attack without the U.N.'s blessing.

Putin also said Russia would "help Syria" if the United States were to strike, pointing to existing military, economic and humanitarian cooperation.

Winning over the international community isn’t the U.S.’s sole concern in the push for military action in Syria. The Obama administration still has to win backing from Congress for any action taken.

The world is still waiting for a much-anticipated report by U.N. inspectors on the deadly Aug. 21 attacks that, according to the United States, left more than 1,400 people dead.

At the G-20 summit, French President Francois Hollande vowed to wait for the U.N. report before joining any military action, a decision welcomed by Germany.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged the U.N. to publish its report "as quickly as possible" to help Europe's divided leaders determine a response.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters it was essential to wait for the U.N. report, and that "it will be the best picture we can get from any source."

"The Indians, the Brazilians, the Chinese and others don't really think that information from U.S. intelligence is enough, and that's the world we live in," he said.

Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have on three occasions voted down resolutions that would have put pressure on Assad.

Later on Saturday, Kerry is due to fly to Paris for talks with French officials.

He will also meet Arab League leaders to update them on Syria and on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Pope Francis has appealed for a peaceful solution to the crisis, calling on the world to unite on Saturday in a day of fasting and prayer for Syria.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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