Assad denial as Obama seeks strike backing

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad denied that he was behind a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, as the White House yesterday pressed ahead with the uphill effort of persuading Congress to approve a military strike to punish Assad.

Assad denial as Obama seeks strike backing

The Obama administration faces a crucial test vote set for Wednesday in the Senate, and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of five Sunday talk shows to argue for a resolution authorising a limited strike on Syria.

In Paris, the US secretary of state John Kerry did not rule out France’s suggestion that it go to the UN Security Council for an authorisation of a possible military strike once UN inspectors complete their report on the Aug 21 attack near Damascus in which more than 1,400 people were killed.

Russia and China, veto- wielding members of the UN Security Council, have blocked previous efforts to punish the Syrian government. The United States and France hold that Assad was behind the attack and should be deterred from using chemical weapons again.

Assad denied involvement in the attack and said if the US has evidence, Washington should produce it, CBS reported yesterday on its news programme Face the Nation.

“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” CBS reported Assad as saying in an interview conducted in Damascus. The report was a summary of the interview and did not contain any audio or video clips of Assad.

Assad said he feared an attack might degrade the Syrian military and tip the balance in the 2½-year-old civil war, CBS reported.

The Syrian president also warned that if there was a military strike by the US, there would be retaliation by those aligned with Syria, CBS said.

In London, Kerry countered Assad, saying: “The evidence speaks for itself.”

President Obama faces an uphill climb to persuade US lawmakers returning from a summer recess to vote for military action. During the break, their constituents voiced strong objections to the action, worrying that it would drag the country into another costly, and broader, Middle East conflict.

Opinion polls show most Americans oppose a strike. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said 56% of Americans believed the US should not intervene in Syria; 19% backed action.

McDonough, the White House chief of staff, led the administration’s lobbying effort yesterday, part of an intensive push for support that will continue today when Obama sits for six network television interviews, and will culminate with an address to the country tomorrow night.

“Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children? The answer to that question ... will be followed closely in Damascus, but will also be followed closely in Tehran, among Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. So this is a very important week,” McDonough said on Fox News Sunday.

While Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a supporter of the strikes, he said Obama had made “a hash” of his argument to punish Assad.

“It’s very clear he’s lost support in the last week,” Rogers said on Face the Nation. He said Obama should have called Congress back from its summer break for classified briefings on the proposed strikes, and the administration needed to “regroup”. He said: “The president hasn’t made the case.”

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said: “If I were the president, I would withdraw my request. I don’t believe the support is there in Congress.”

Congressional surveys make it clear Obama has a difficult task. A Washington Post vote count showed 223 House members either against or leaning against authorising the use of military force in Syria. That is more than the 217 needed to block the resolution.

Notice of attack

The United States would notify Israel hours in advance of an attack on Syria, an Israeli official said yesterday.

While formally on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, Israel fears coming under reprisals from its northern foe should the United States launch strikes to punish Damascus for alleged use of chemical weaponry.

Asked how much advance notice Israel would get from its US ally about such attacks, an Israeli official briefed on contacts with Washington told Reuters: “Hours.”

But a senior strategist for the Defence Ministry said separately Israel was, like the rest of the world, in the dark at present.

“Will the United States attack? Will it not attack? What will the consequences be? All of these things are unknowns,” Amos Gilad said in a speech at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv.

President Barack Obama has run into formidable US domestic opposition to military action. Wary of appearing to meddle in American affairs, most Israeli officials have not publicly commented on the debate.

Israel plans to deploy anti-missile systems and troop reinforcements on its Syrian and Lebanese fronts if Obama green-lights strikes against Syria.

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