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European dealmaking on Syria as U.S. tries to build coalition

By Elise Labott, CNN
updated 5:12 PM EDT, Sat September 7, 2013
French President Francois Hollande speaks during a press conference.
French President Francois Hollande speaks during a press conference.
  • Leaders decide they want inspectors' report first
  • Officials want signal of backing from U.N.
  • It's a sign of European politics

Paris (CNN) -- You may have been surprised by the about-face by French President Francois Hollande who -- after initially stressing the need for urgent action on Syria while insisting there was no need to wait for the United Nations inspectors' report on the August 21 attack -- said on Friday that he now wants to wait for their findings.

Then, Saturday in Lithuania after four hours of talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union foreign ministers issued a statement blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack, calling it a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity" and calling for a "clear and strong" international response.

But the statement said U.N. inspectors investigating the incident should report their initial findings before any action is taken.

What's going on?

It is all about European politics.

European diplomats say Hollande seemed to be left hanging when President Barack Obama decided to seek authorization for strikes from Congress. He is facing pressure from the French public and Parliament for a stronger international backing and U.N. imprint before taking military action in Syria.

European diplomats tell CNN that Hollande struck a deal with the European Union. In exchange for more European political support for action, he would wait for the U.N. inspectors' report. That was the genesis of the E.U. statement, which now has all 28 countries on record.

Until now, just a few countries were even expressing support for such action, as evident by the fact only 10 countries joined the United States in signing onto the G-20 statement (France, the U.K. and Spain were the only European nations).

EU urges strong response, as Kerry seeks support for military action

You may note Germany did not initially sign onto the G-20 statement Friday. But on Saturday, the Germans publicly endorsed it. Senior U.S. and other officials in the E.U. meeting with Kerry said the Germans were the ones that called for the European Union to issue this statement.

Although the statement does not explicitly endorse military action, European diplomats tell CNN it is interpreted as tacit approval and political cover for strikes -- once the U.N. inspectors present their findings -- although it is important to note the European Union does remain divided and some countries will never publicly endorse military action, even with the U.N. report.

Diplomats say waiting for the report doesn't really slow up military action for several more weeks -- because the E.U. statement refers to a "preliminary report", which it said should be presented "as soon as possible." And as CNN's Nick Paton Walsh has reported, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has instructed the inspectors to speed this up.

So the debate in Congress and a U.N. report should come to a head around the same time.

'Constructive' talks, but little headway on Syrian crisis

Many E.U. nations need the U.N. stamp as a legitimacy for supporting action in Syria, even politically. It doesn't have to be a U.N. Security Council resolution. It could be something less formal; it just has to have some U.N. imprimatur.

So this let's everyone get a little of what they want. Hollande gets European political cover. The Europeans get a U.N. address and Obama gets more international consensus.

Kerry told the E.U. no decision has been made to wait, but he appreciated the statement and would take it back to the president's national security team. Officials traveling with Kerry naturally trying to put a positive spin on this: they didn't expect a statement and see this as a clear show of European support for action.

Obama may say he doesn't have to wait for the U.N. report -- but Hollande does, so Obama is going to have to deal with it if he wants any European support, especially from France.

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