British politicians voted against a military response in Syria today, a move that comes after embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad vowed his country would "defend itself against any aggression" that may come in response to allegations of chemical weapons use.

Prime Minister David Cameron lost the vote with 285 against the idea compared to 272 in favour.

Cameron said he "strongly" believes in the need for a tough response to chemical weapons use, but also believes in respecting the will of the House of Commons. 

He said it was clear after the vote that Parliament, "reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action," Cameron said. "I get that, and the government will act accordingly."

The U.K. vote was nonbinding, but in practice the rejection of military strikes means Cameron's hands are tied.

Earlier this week, the U.K. seemed a likely participant, along with the U.S. and several other allies, in a possible military strike against the Assad regime.

Later Thursday, Reuters reported that the White House said officials were aware of the vote in the U.K., but that President Barack Obama believes there are core interests at stake for the U.S. and that those who use chemical weapons should be held accountable.

Exactly what the U.S. might do, and when, remains unclear. Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama has been "very clear" that he is not considering an open-ended military response.

"What we are talking about here is something that is very discrete and limited."

Canada has expressed outrage over the reports, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Thursday that Canada has no plans for a military mission of its own in Syria, although the government supports its allies and has been convinced of the need for "forceful action."

Assad vows to defend Syria

The vote comes after Assad vowed that Syria will defend itself. The comments by the regime's embattled leader, who has vehemently denied his troops used chemicals in an Aug. 21 attack and has accused rebel fighters of using poison gas on government troops, were reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Thursday. They come a day after Obama said U.S. retaliation for any Syrian chemical weapons use would send a "strong signal" to Assad's regime.

"Threats to launch a direct aggression against Syria will make it more adherent to its well-established principles and sovereign decisions stemming from the will of its people, and Syria will defend itself against any aggression," Assad said, according to the SANA report.

Talk of retaliatory action against Syria has been fast and furious since the Aug. 21 attack in which Assad's forces are alleged to have unleashed a chemical assault in three suburbs near Damascus. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders puts the death toll from that attack at 355.

The UN has estimated that more than 100,000 have been killed in fighting in Syria's two-year civil war, which began from uprisings against Assad in March 2011.

On Thursday, UN experts in Syria toured the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka, according to anti-regime activists and amateur video. It was the inspectors' third day of investigations.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told reporters the inspection team will be leaving by Saturday, although he had originally requested more time for inspectors to gather evidence.

He told reporters in Vienna that he expects inspectors to report to him as soon as they leave Syria, and that their analysis would be shared with members of the Security Council. It will also be presented to all UN member states.

"They will continue their investigation activities until tomorrow, Friday, and will come out of Syria by Saturday morning and will report to me as soon as they come out of Syria," Ban said.

Ban has repeatedly stated his wish for a diplomatic solution to the escalating situation in Syria, as some Western powers appear to be edging towards possible military intervention.

A UN Security Council meeting held to discuss Syria Thursday afternoon lasted about 45 minutes, CBC's Melissa Kent reported from New York. Russia and China were first to leave, despite Russia having called the meeting. It's not yet clear whether any decisions were made at the closed-door session.

The use of chemical weapons is prohibited under international law.

Canada won't have military mission

'[A]t the present time, the government of Canada has no plans … of our own to have a Canadian military mission.'—Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Harper told reporters Thursday that Canada supports punitive measures against Syria, albeit as a "reluctant convert" to the idea that such measures could mean Western military action.

He noted that failure on the part of the international community to act forcefully against Syria for using chemical weapons would set "an extremely dangerous precedent."

"This is a very big risk and we do believe and we do support our allies who are contemplating a forceful action to deal with this," he said.

"That said, at the present time, the government of Canada has no plans … of our own to have a Canadian military mission."

Meanwhile, Russia's Interfax news agency reported Thursday that Moscow is sending two warships — a missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet and a large anti-submarine ship from the Northern Fleet — to the east Mediterranean. Russia has denied that the naval movements is a response to Western powers preparing military action against its ally, Syria.

But even as the U.S. moves closer to possible military action, new hurdles appear to be slowing the formation of an international coalition to undertake such a strike. And questions remain about the strength of the case against Assad.

Earlier, Cameron said the U.K. would hold off on joining any military efforts until a UN chemical weapons inspection team releases its findings.

Obama has previously said that while he had not settled on a response to last week's purported chemical weapons attack, he said the U.S. has concluded that Assad's regime perpetrated the attack.

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A UN chemical weapons expert wearing a gas mask carries samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus on Wednesday. (Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters)

"And if that's so," Obama said during an interview with NewsHour on PBS, "then there needs to be international consequences."

However, U.S. officials say the intelligence linking Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack is no "slam dunk." They say questions remain about who controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores, and there are doubts about whether Assad himself ordered such a strike.

A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence builds a case that Assad's forces are most likely responsible, but also points to gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture. The intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

American intelligence intercepted communications among lower-level Syrian military commanders discussing the chemical attack, but the communications don't specifically link the attack to an official senior enough to tie the killings to Assad himself, according to three U.S. intelligence officials.

The administration was planning an intelligence teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and the national security committees in Congress, U.S. officials and congressional aides said. Officials also said an unclassified version of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence would be made public this week.

The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military decided to use chemical weapons without Assad's authorization. That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report laying out evidence against Assad. The report was promised earlier this week by administration officials.

Obama said he was not seeking a lengthy, open-ended conflict in Syria, indicating that any U.S. response would be limited in scope. But he argued that Syria's use of chemical weapons not only violated international norms, but threatened "America's core self-interest."

"We do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable," he said.

 

With files from The Canadian Press, Reuters, The Associated Press