U.K. Position Makes Syria Strike More Complicated For U.S.

A UN weapons inspection team is due to leave Syria on Saturday, but it will take time for them to review all of the material they've gathered about an alleged chemical weapons attack. The British government now says it will wait to hear the report before taking any military action to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime. That leaves the U.S. in an awkward position. It has written off the UN route because of Russia's opposition to any action.

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Deciding what to do about Syria just got more complicated for President Obama, at least on the diplomatic front. He's been considering a shot across the bow, as he puts it, to punish Bashar al-Assad's government for using chemical weapons. But today, the British Parliament voted against a possible military strike, and other allies are waiting to see what U.N. weapons inspectors. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a lengthy and heated debate in the British Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron argued there is good reason and a legal basis to launch a military strike on Syria, but parliament rejected his arguments, even after he tried to reassure lawmakers that his government will wait to see the evidence gathered by U.N. chemical weapons inspectors.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: The weapons investigators in Damascus must complete their work. They should brief the United Nations Security Council. A genuine attempt should be made at a condemnatory Chapter VII Resolution backing all necessary measures.

KELEMEN: Cameron made the comment a day after the U.S. said it saw no way forward at the U.N. because of Russia's intransigence on the issue of Syria. Russia called another meeting of the permanent five Security Council members to discuss Syria, and the U.S. took part despite its doubts. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says the administration is still weighing its options and will move ahead with or without the U.N. or even the U.K.

MARIE HARF: We make our own decisions and our own time line. But clearly, the consultation piece of this is incredibly important.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has also basically written off a U.N. chemical weapons investigation, calling it redundant because the team is only there to determine whether and what kind of chemical weapons were used, not to assign blame. But U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq says the inspectors have gathered a lot of evidence that they will bring to different labs in Europe, and he argues that the evidence could provide more clarity to policymakers.

FARHAN HAQ: They will have a large number of facts at their disposal. They've collected a considerable amount of evidence - evidence through samples, evidence through witness interviews - and they can construct from that a fact-based narrative that can get at the key facts of what happened on the 21st of August.

KELEMEN: The U.N. spokesman says the inspectors plan to leave Damascus Saturday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cut short a trip to Europe to return to New York, and expects to get a briefing by the inspectors soon. State Department spokesperson Harf says the U.S. will look at the U.N.'s findings, though she says the U.S. has already reached its own conclusions.

HARF: Obviously, any additional information we get from the U.N. or elsewhere we would welcome. But we would also say that we believe the Assad regime has used the U.N. investigation at times in its response to the U.N. investigation to stall. They've used it to hide behind, quite frankly.

KELEMEN: She rejected any comparison to the Bush administration's use of intelligence assessments to justify the war in Iraq. Harf says what the Obama administration is contemplating for Syria is far more limited. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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