Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
PARIS — The United States found itself Friday with France as its only major partner in a potential strike against Syria, after a stunning rejection of military force in Parliament forced Britain, America's staunchest ally, to pull out of any operation.
The collapse of British support for a mission to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons puts pressure on President Barack Obama as resistance grows at home — and comes with the irony that France was the most vocal critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
French President Francois Hollande pledged backing for a potential American operation to hit the Damascus regime.
"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said in an interview published Friday by the newspaper Le Monde, as U.N. experts in Damascus began what is expected to be the last day of their probe into the alleged attack.
Amid the turmoil of a British "no" and mounting American skepticism, Obama appeared undeterred in his desire to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking from Manila, Philippines, issued an impassioned defense of the principles behind the planned strike.
"I don't know of any responsible government around the world ... that has not spoken out in violent opposition to the use of chemical weapons on innocent people," Hagel said, adding that such attacks violate basic standards of decency.
He said that Washington would continue to seek partners in its Syria mission: "Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together."
On Thursday, the U.S. administration shared intelligence with lawmakers in an effort to persuade them that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.
In Damascus, shops and supermarkets filled with people stocking up on bread, canned food and other necessities ahead of the expected strikes, although there appeared to be no signs of panic or food shortages. Prices have shot up because of the high demand, residents complained.
Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee, put on a brave face.
"We got used to the sound of shelling," he said. "Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I'm not afraid."
On the last expected day of chemical weapons inspections, three U.N. vehicles headed out for more on-site visits, following an early morning delay.
The U.N. has said the inspectors will wrap up their investigation Friday and leave Syria for the Hague, Netherlands, on Saturday. Some of the experts will travel to laboratories in Europe to deliver the material they've collected this week during trips to the Damascus suburbs purportedly hit by toxic gas.
Russia, which as a firm backer of the Assad regime is fiercely hostile to military intervention, expressed bewilderment Friday at why the U.N. team was leaving so soon.
"We don't quite understand why the entire team had to be going back to the Hague when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria," said Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the timing reflected the urgency of getting any samples to laboratories, noting that the inspectors must do that themselves to "ensure the chain of custody." He said the inspectors intend to return to Syria to investigate other alleged attacks.
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