PARIS (AP) — The United States found itself with only one major partner — France — in its plans to strike Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, after its staunchest ally Britain had to beg off following a stunning rejection of military force by Parliament.
The collapse of support puts pressure on President Barack Obama as resistance to the mission grows at home — and comes with the irony that Paris was the most vocal critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
French President Francois Hollande pledged backing Friday for Obama's plans to hit the Damascus regime.
“The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished,” Hollande said in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, published Friday, as U.N. experts in Damascus began what is expected to be the last day of their probe into the alleged attack.
Amid the turmoil of a British `no' and mounting American skepticism, Obama appeared undeterred in his determination to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking from Manila, Philippines, issued an impassioned defense of the principles behind the planned strike.
“I don't know of any responsible government around the world … that has not spoken out in violent opposition to the use of chemical weapons on innocent people,” said Hagel, adding that such attacks violate basic standards of decency.
He said that Washington would continue to seek partners in its Syria mission: “Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together.”
The U.S. administration shared intelligence with lawmakers Thursday aimed at convincing them the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people and must be punished.
“The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, shops and supermarkets filled with Syrians stocking up on bread, canned food and other necessities ahead of the expected U.S. strikes, although there appeared to be no signs of panic or food shortages. Prices have shot up because of the high demand, residents complained.
Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee, said he was not particularly worried about the U.S. threats. “We got used to the sound of shelling … Death is the same be it with a mortar or with an American missile,” he said. “I'm not afraid.”
On the last expected day of chemical weapons inspections, three U.N. vehicles headed out for more on-site visits, following an early morning delay.
The U.N. said Thursday that the inspectors would wrap up their investigation Friday and leave Syria for the Hague, Netherlands, the following day. Some of the experts will travel to laboratories in Europe to deliver the material they've collected this week during trips to the Damascus suburbs purportedly hit by toxic gas.
Russia, which as a firm backer of the Assad regime is fiercely hostile to military intervention, expressed bewilderment Friday at why the U.N. team was leaving so soon.
“We don't quite understand why the entire team had to be going back to the Hague when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria,” said Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser.
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