West builds case for Syria strikes

LONDON - British Prime Minister David Cameron opened an emergency session of the House of Commons on Thursday by saying the debate on Syria is about "how to respond to one of most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century" -- not about regime change or invasion.

"Put simply, is it in Britain's national interest in maintaining an international taboo against the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield," Cameron asked lawmakers. "I would say yes it is."

Cameron told members of the House of Commons -- whom he recalled from summer vacation to debate a British response to the deaths of hundreds in a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus last week -- that the government would not act without first hearing from U.N. weapons inspectors, giving the United Nations a chance to weigh in and Parliament to have another vote.

But, he said, failing ultimately to act would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the unmistakable signal that he could use such weapons "with impunity, Cameron said.

Noting 14 previous Syrian government uses of chemical weapons British intelligence says it has confirmed, Cameron said he believes al-Assad opted to increase the scale of his chemical attacks as a sort of test for the world.

"He wants to know whether the world will response to the use of these weapons," Cameron said.

Memories of more than a decade of bruising warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan hung over the debate, with many members of parliament expressing unease over the prospect of committing any British forces to another Middle Eastern conflict.

Earlier, the government published an intelligence assessment that said it was "highly likely" that the Syrian government was behind the suspected chemical weapons attack last week. British intelligence said at least 350 people died, rebel leaders have put the death toll at more than 1,300.

"It is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a (chemical weapons) attack on this scale," the British Joint Intelligence Organisation said in the assessment. The agency said it is confident as well that Syrian authorities had used chemical weapons at least 14 times before.

Western powers are debating using military power to counter the August 21 attack, which was much larger and deadlier than earlier assaults, saying it violates international norms.

The British government also said that it could justify the use of force against Syria even if the United Nations declined to authorize a strike.

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