Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 | 8:23 a.m.
LONDON — As momentum toward an imminent Western military strike on Syria appeared to slow, U.N. inspectors headed to the outskirts of Damascus for a third day Thursday, seeking evidence of chemical attacks while the British authorities took the unusual step of publishing an intelligence assessment blaming the Syrian government for the deadly onslaught.
Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, told reporters in Vienna that the inspectors would complete their work Friday and report to him Saturday about their inquiry into attacks last week that left hundreds dead.
The inspectors headed in a six-car convoy Thursday toward the site of attacks in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus, to collect evidence and samples, activists said, and were focusing on the Zamalka area. Their mandate is not to apportion blame for firing chemical weapons but to establish whether they were used.
In London, government enthusiasm for a rapid retaliatory strike against Syrian government targets seemed to evaporate late Wednesday when British leaders, facing dissent among lawmakers, signaled that they would await the inspectors’ findings. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, aware of the sensitivities created by the Iraq War, said unexpectedly that a separate vote would be required later, possibly next week, to authorize military action.
Cameron bowed to pressure from the opposition Labour Party and to some within his own coalition who want to wait for the weapons inspectors and for the U.N. Security Council to make one more effort to give a more solid legal backing to military action against the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria.
The delay in Britain sharpened the focus on France — a European rival for influence — where President François Hollande met Thursday with Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the fractured Syrian opposition, which is seeking the overthrow of Assad.
In an interview published before the meeting, Jarba displayed growing impatience with the pace of Western moves toward a military strike and with the level of support for insurgents seeking the overthrow of Assad.
In Tehran, President Hasan Rouhani was quoted as saying that Iran, Syria’s most powerful regional backer, believed that it was necessary to “apply all efforts to prevent” military action against the authorities in Damascus. “Military action will have a big amount of costs for the region,” Iranian state television quoted Rouhani as telling President Vladimir Putin of Russia in a telephone conversation late Wednesday.