White House gets endorsements for Syria strike; Assad denies gas attack

The Washington Post, AFP-JIJI

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama picked up new international endorsements Sunday for a military strike against Syria as Syrian President Bashar Assad denied his government had used chemical weapons and warned the American people not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war.

After a meeting in Paris with Arab foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saudi Arabia backed “the strike” that Obama is weighing to punish Syria for the August chemical attack he said left more than 1,400 dead. Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, speaking at a news conference with Kerry, called for foreign intervention “to protect the Syrian people.”

Qatar also agreed to join a statement, signed by 11 U.S. allies who attended last week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons, holding Assad responsible for what they called a “horrific” chemical attack on Aug. 21 in the suburbs of Damascus and calling for a “strong international response.”

The initial signatories were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Britain and Germany, which signed the day after the statement’s Friday release by the White House.

The statement was shepherded by the administration after the G-20 failed to agree on a common position. The G-20 nations that did not sign included Brazil, India and Indonesia, along with China and Russia, Assad’s principal arms supplier.

The statement has become the administration’s vehicle of choice to demonstrate shared international outrage as Obama fights an uphill battle for congressional authorization of the use of force against Assad. Kerry said other Arab countries have also agreed to sign it and will “make their own announcements in the next 24 hours.”

On Saturday, the 28-member European Union unanimously agreed to a similar statement. But neither document mentioned support for a military strike, and the EU said there should be no action against Syria until U.N. investigators who visited the site of the chemical attack issue their report later this month. The administration has said the U.N. report is irrelevant because U.S. intelligence has confirmed the attack and much of the world agrees.

Although administration officials have indicated they have wide allied backing for military intervention, the only other nations to publicly indicate support are Turkey and France, which said last week it wants to wait for the U.N. report. In Britain, parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for authorization to join the United States in a military strike.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been among the leading arms suppliers to the Syrian rebels and have long backed unspecified direct foreign intervention in Syria. Although neither has said whether it will participate in a U.S.-led military strike, al-Attiyah said Sunday that his government is considering how it can be of assistance. Qatar sent bombers and other resources to aid the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.

Speaking through an interpreter, al-Attiyah said that “the Syrian people over more than three years have been demanding or asking the international community to intervene.”

“Several parties who support the Syrian regime,” he said, had been intervening in that country since the war began with an uprising against the government in 2011. He was apparently referring to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

The Paris meeting was originally scheduled as an opportunity for Kerry to brief the Arab League on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Along with the Qatari and Saudi Arabian representatives, also attending were the foreign ministers of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby.

Kerry, who flew to London late Sunday for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, repeatedly emphasized the need and desire for a political solution in Syria. But he spent the weekend trying to rally foreign support for a military strike while the administration continued making its case to Congress and the American people at home.

“All of us agree — not one dissenter — that Assad’s deplorable use of chemical weapons . . . crosses an international global red line,” Kerry said after the talks in Paris:

It remains unclear whether Obama, who was partly elected in 2008 on his promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will decide to go it alone if he fails to win congressional approval.

While a resolution for a military strike is likely to pass the Senate controlled by Obama’s Democrats, according to a Washington Post survey some 224 of the current 433 members of the Republican dominated House were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon is preparing for three days of attacks on Syria — longer than originally planned.

War planners now aim to unleash a heavy barrage of missile strikes to be followed swiftly by additional attacks on targets that may have been missed or remain standing after the initial launch, the newspaper cited officials as saying.

Meanwhile, Assad sent his own message to the American people, telling Charlie Rose of CBS News in a Damascus interview that “it had not been a good experience” for the American people “to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts.” He added that “they should communicate to their Congress and to their leadership in Washington not to authorize a strike.”

Many of Assad’s comments, which were conveyed by Rose in a telephone report from Beirut on CBS’ “Face the Nation” ahead of their broadcast Monday, appeared designed to play on what opinion polls have shown is strong public opposition to U.S. intervention and indicated Assad is closely following U.S. media reports.

Rose said the Syrian president “denied that he had anything to do with the (chemical) attack. He denied that he knew there was a chemical attack. . . . He said ‘I can neither confirm or deny’ ” that Syria possesses chemical weapons.

“He suggested, as he has before, that perhaps the rebels had something to do” with the reported attack, Rose said, and he quoted the Syrian leader as saying there had been no evidence he had used chemical weapons against his people.

If the Obama administration had evidence, he said, Assad suggested “they should show that evidence and make their case.”

Assad said that his forces “were obviously as prepared as they could be for a strike,” Rose reported, and that he was “very, very concerned” that an American attack would tip the military balance of the war in the rebels’ favor.

The longtime Syrian leader warned that as his country prepares “as best we can” for U.S. military action, there could be bitter consequences. He “suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made,” Rose told CBS.

Syria won some indirect support of its own Sunday as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a Baghdad news conference with his Iranian counterpart that Iraq “will not be a base for any attack nor will it facilitate any such attack on Syria.”

Speaking during his first visit abroad since his appointment last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that U.S. intervention in Syria risks igniting a regionwide war.

“Those who are shortsighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone,” Zarif said.