The European Union agreed on Saturday that the Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus appears to have been the work of the Syrian regime, but that any potential military attack against it should wait for a United Nations inspectors' report.
After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the EU's foreign ministers ended days of division on the issue with a statement saying the available intelligence "seems to indicate strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for these attacks."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who hosted the meeting, put it more bluntly in targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, speaking of "more and more evidence that the Assad regime is behind all these crimes. We can't just ignore this."
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The EU states, most of which have been skeptical of a quick retaliatory strike against the Syrian government, underscored "the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process." The ministers said they hope a "preliminary report of this first [UN] investigation can be released as soon as possible."
Kerry welcomed the stand of the 28 EU members, calling it "a strong statement" backing all "the efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for what it has done."
The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine reported Saturday that the UN chemical weapons inspectors could submit initial findings from their tests of samples collected in Syria by the end of next week. The newspaper said the interim report to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon will likely contain details on the gas, ammunition and delivery systems used in the attack, which killed hundreds of people in a suburb of Damascus.
Instrumental in bringing the EU together around a common viewpoint was Friday's decision by French President François Hollande to wait for the UN report before deciding to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war, even though France had said the report would only show a chemical attack had taken place, not apportion blame.
The EU ministers welcomed "President Hollande's statement to wait for this report before any further action."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the United States should follow France's example.
"We jointly welcomed the fact that France has decided to wait for the presentation of the United Nations report," Westerwelle told reporters. "We have also made clear our expectation toward our American partners that one should follow the example of France before capitals decide on taking further measures."
The EU ministers also stressed that perpetrators for such chemical attacks should face possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Germany joined in on blaming the attack on the Syrian government. It had been the only European member of the Group of 20 countries not to co-sign a joint statement issued Friday at the end of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, blaming the regime.
That G-20 statement calls for a strong international response against Assad's regime but stops short of explicitly calling for military action against the Syrian government. Germany's Westerwelle said his country wanted to wait for EU foreign ministers to agree on a common position before backing the statement.
Kerry said Saturday he would share his counterparts' concern with Obama administration officials. A senior U.S. State Department official who attended Kerry's meeting with the ministers said Kerry made clear that the U.S. has not made any decision to wait for the UN report before launching a potential strike. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose details about the private meeting.
"My impression is that the American side understood our expectations and that they will consider this in their own decision-making process," Westerwelle said.
The U.S. blames Assad's regime for the chemical attack and, citing intelligence reports, says sarin gas was used. French intelligence reports have also said sarin was the agent used in the August incident, as well as in two other smaller-scale gas attacks earlier this year.
The U.S. says 1,429 people died, including 426 children.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has only been able to confirm 502 dead.
An estimated 100,000 Syrians have died in the country's 2½-year-old civil war, while a third of the country's 23 million people have been displaced.
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