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Britain worried about ties with US

The International Committee of the Red Cross joined a chorus of international voices urging caution.

British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in central London after a Cabinet meeting to discuss a response to Syria following chemical attacks that Britain believe were launched by the Syrian regime. 29 August 2013. Picture: Leon Neal/AFP

LONDON - Britain will not join any military action against Syria after a stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday of a government motion on the issue, dealing a setback to US-led efforts to punish Damascus over the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Following a 285-272 vote against a motion by British Prime Minister David Cameron to authorise a military response in principle, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed Britain would not be involved in any action against Syria.

Hammond said key ally Washington would be disappointed that Britain "will not be involved," although adding, "I don't expect that the lack of British participation will stop any action."

But he told BBC TV, "It's certainly going to place some strain on the special relationship," referring to ties with Washington.

US officials suggested President Barack Obama would be willing to proceed with limited actions against Syria even without specific promises of allied support because US national security interests are at stake.

"President Obama's decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement after the British vote. "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."

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington would continue seeking out an international coalition to act together on Syria.

Obama administration officials said they had "no doubt" chemical weapons were used in Syria and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government had used them.

Britain's Cameron, said he would not override the will of parliament's decision.

Cameron said, "I can give that assurance. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons."

The parliamentary vote reflected deep misgivings stemming from Britain's involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

White House spokesman said the United States had been encouraged by the support voiced by a wide variety of world leaders, such as the Arab League, on the need for a response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

US officials conceded on Thursday they lacked conclusive evidence that Assad personally ordered last week's poison gas attack.

But any intervention looked set to be delayed at least until UN investigators report back after leaving Syria on Saturday.

DISCRETE AND LIMITED

Syrian opposition sources said Assad's forces had removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, possibly to protect them from a Western attack, and Russia was reported to be moving ships into the region.

Syria denies blame for the gas attacks and says they were perpetrated by rebels. Washington and its allies say the denial is not credible.

ATROCIOUS CRIME

The United Nations said its team of inspectors would leave Syria on Saturday and report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

France and Germany urged the world body to pass its report on to the decision-making Security Council as soon as possible "so that it can fulfil its responsibility with regards to this monstrous crime."

The United States, Britain and France have said action could be taken with or without a Security Council resolution, which would likely be vetoed by Russia, a close ally of Assad. But some countries are more cautious: Italy said it would not join any military operation without Security Council authorisation.

Western diplomats say they are seeking a vote in the 15-member Council to isolate Moscow and demonstrate that other countries are behind air strikes.

A report from Moscow that Russia is sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean underscored the complications surrounding even a limited military strike, although Russia has said it will not be drawn into military conflict.

China said there should be no rush to force council action against Syria until the probe by UN inspectors is complete.

A spokesman for the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, said the opposition was confident Western leaders were prepared to act.

Despite opinion polls showing most Americans oppose deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict, Obama has been under pressure to enforce a "red line" against chemical weapons use, which he declared just over a year ago.

The likeliest option, US officials say, would be to launch cruise missiles from US ships in the Mediterranean in a campaign that would last days.

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