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UK crumbles- France decides to wait for stuttering US on Syria intervention
The number of Syrian refugees passed the two million mark, a United Nations agency said on Tuesday, warning that the world faces its greatest threat to peace since the Vietnam war.
As President Barack Obama wrestled with doubt in Congress ahead of votes next week on possible U.S. strikes on Syria, Israeli forces training with the U.S. navy in the Mediterranean set nerves on edge with a missile test that triggered an alert from Russia. Obama asked lawmakers to back military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of people with poison gas last month - a charge Assad denied as he warned Washington and French allies of retribution
In remarks that appeared to question the legality of U.S. plans to strike Syria without U.N. backing, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the use of force is only legal when it is in self-defense or with U.N. Security Council authorization.
He said that if U.N. inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Security Council, which has long been deadlocked on the 2-1/2-year Syrian civil war, should overcome its differences and take action.
Having startled friends and foes alike in the Middle East by delaying a punitive attack on Assad until Congress reconvenes and agrees, Obama met congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday to urge a prompt decision and assure them it did not mean another long war like Iraq or Afghanistan.
In a boost for Obama, John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both pledged their support for military action after the meeting.
Votes are expected to be held in the U.S. Senate and House next week, with the Republican-led House presenting the tougher challenge for Obama.
The president said strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons would hurt Assad's forces while other U.S. action would bolster his opponents - though the White House has insisted it is not seeking "regime change" that might end Syria's civil war.
"What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities," Obama said. "At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."
Assad denies deploying poison gas that killed hundreds of civilians last month. The presence in rebel ranks of Islamist militants, some of them close to al Qaeda, has made Western leaders wary, while at the same time the undoubted - and apparently accelerating - human cost of the conflict has brought pressure to intervene.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee said on Tuesday he was confident after talking with Obama that the United States would step up its support for "vetted" elements of the Syrian opposition.
Senator Carl Levin said he urged the president, a fellow Democrat, to arm the Syrian rebels a day after two influential Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, sought similar assurances from Obama. Levin said he told the White House that the United States should provide rebels with arms such as anti-tank weapons "which cannot be turned on us."
After two and a half years of war, nearly one Syrian in three has been driven from home by violence and fear.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said there had been a near tenfold increase over the past 12 months in the rate of refugees crossing Syria's borders into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon - to a daily average of nearly 5,000 men, women and children.
This has pushed the total living abroad above 2 million.
That represents some 10 percent of Syria's population, the UNHCR said. With a further 4.25 million estimated to have been displaced but still resident inside the country, close to a third of all Syrians are living away from their original homes.
Comparing the figures to the peak of Afghanistan's refugee crisis two decades ago, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, said: "Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history."
The conflict has divided the Middle East on sectarian lines, with Shi'ite Iran backing Assad and Washington's Sunni Arab Gulf allies supporting the mainly Sunni rebels. It has also revived Cold War-style tensions between the Western powers and Moscow.
Britain has dropped out of planning for attacks since its parliament rejected a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron but France, western Europe's other main military power, is still coordinating possible action with the Pentagon.
President Francois Hollande has resisted opposition calls to submit any decision to wage war to parliament. His government presented lawmakers on Monday with what it said was evidence of Assad's responsibility for a "massive and coordinated" chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
However, Hollande said on Tuesday that there would be no French action if the U.S. Congress fails to back Obama.
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