U.S., France say support growing for Syria strikes

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The United States and France said Saturday that international backing was growing for military strikes to punish the Syrian regime for alleged chemical attacks, after European Union nations called for a “strong” response.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the number of countries ready to take military action was now in the “double digits,” after earlier attending a meeting where EU foreign ministers united to call for action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“I was encouraged by the statement the EU gave,” Kerry said in Paris at a joint press conference with French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

“It’s a very powerful statement, this is growing, not receding, in terms of the global sense of outrage.”

He added there was “a number of countries, in the double digits, who are prepared to take military action. We have more countries prepared to take military action than we actually could use in the kind of military action being contemplated.”

The U.S. accuses the Assad regime of gassing more than 1,400 people to death in an August 21 attack outside Damascus.

In his weekly address, U.S. President Barack Obama warned of the dangers of turning “a blind eye” to chemical attacks.

“I call on members of Congress, from both parties, to come together and stand up for the kind of world we want to live in,” the president said after returning from a G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia that deadlocked over the response to the Syria crisis.

Obama has asked for Congress to authorize strikes on Syria. The legislature reconvenes Monday and the president is set to address the nation Tuesday about the U.S. response.

Kerry meanwhile sought to whip up support from Washington’s divided allies in Europe, holding talks with the EU’s 28 foreign ministers in Lithuania and with Fabius in France before heading to Britain on Sunday.

Fabius told reporters after their talks that there was “wide and growing support” to take action on Syria.

“Right now, seven of the eight countries in the G8 share our opinion on a strong reaction and 12 countries of the G20 also share this opinion,” he said.

Split between Paris and London, who are hardline supporters of U.S.-led military action, and smaller nations reluctant to act without a United Nations mandate, the EU ministers managed to hammer out a compromise in Lithuania.

A statement read out by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton dubbed the suspected chemical attack “a war crime and a crime against humanity.”

There was “strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible,” the statement said.

“A clear and strong response is critical to make clear that such crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity.”

In Riyadh, the Gulf Cooperation Council urged the international community to intervene immediately to “rescue” the Syrian people from “oppression.”

Faced with a war-weary U.S. public and little international support, Obama is bracing for an uphill battle to convince American lawmakers to back military action against Assad’s regime.

According to a Washington Post survey, 224 of the current 433 House members were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.

The Senate and the House are expected to vote on the issue within the next two weeks.

In France, the sole EU nation determined to join a U.S.-led strike, the latest public opinion poll showed 68 percent of people opposed to military action, an increase of nine percentage points since late August.

The EU statement said there could be no end to the Syrian war without a political solution and urged the UN Security Council “to fulfill its responsibilities,” a reference to Russia and China's repeated refusals to sanction Assad.

Ashton meanwhile said the EU welcomed French President Francois Hollande’s decision to await the release of a U.N. investigation into the August attack before taking action against Syria.

French President Francois Hollande said he expects the report to be ready by next weekend.

But Kerry made clear that Washington had not decided to postpone a decision on military action until the release of the U.N. report, though several EU ministers said he had pledged to make their case to Obama.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that any intervention in Syria without the United Nations’ blessing would be “outside the law.”

Washington meanwhile is evacuating non-essential embassy staff from Beirut and urging Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon and southern Turkey.

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