PRESIDENTS BARACK OBAMA and Bashar Al-Assad will go head-to-head in dueling US television interviews today, as a crucial week dawns for the US leader’s push for air attacks on Syria.
Assad will reportedly deny that he used chemical weapons on civilians, as Obama makes a long-odds push to reverse his nation’s mood and win support for punishing the Damascus regime for flouting taboos on the use of such arms.
Members of the Spanish Syrian community, one of them wearing a t-shirt with an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad with a slogan reading in Arabic “Iove you”, rally in Barcelona. Pic: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
US Secretary of State John Kerry toiled abroad to build diplomatic support, which appears solid in condemning Assad but is falling short of the kind of broad coalition for military action that Washington had hoped to build.
Assad, fighting a propaganda war as Washington agonises over whether to attack, gave an interview to veteran CBS and PBS newsman Charlie Rose, which will begin airing at 11am GMT.
He will insist he was not behind the August 21 gas attack on a Damascus suburb and say he does not know if a US attack would come.
Rose told CBS that Assad would say “there’s no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.”
And he threatened “some kind of retaliation” if Washington strikes, Rose said.
Obama and Congress
Obama, credibility on the line as signs point to an uphill battle to win support for strikes in Congress, will give interviews to six US television broadcasters today.
His chief of staff Dennis McDonough acknowledged that the evidence linking Assad to last month’s attack that allegedly killed 1,429 people is not “irrefutable.”
Tomorrow, the president will address Americans from the White House, ahead of a possible Senate vote on authorising force in Syria later this week.
While the White House believes an endorsement from the Senate could be within reach, Obama faces a wall of opposition from both Republicans and from many of his Democratic allies in the House of Representatives.
A demonstrator holds up a picture of Syria’s President Assad in front of a poster of a defaced image of President Obama, in Portuguese: “Against imperialist war. Peace for Syria”. Pic: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
The divisions played out in televised political talkshows yesterday.
McDonough implored lawmakers to view harrowing videos of apparently gassed women and children foaming at the mouth as they decide how to cast their fateful votes.
“The question for Congress this week is what are the consequences” for Assad, McDonough told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But many lawmakers, while horrified by the attack and ready to blame the Assad regime, question the rationale for US action, and after more than a decade of war, fear another morass in the Middle East.
Whip counts by US media organisations show that bipartisan opposition to the use of military force may already be reaching a critical mass in the House.
A Washington Post survey said 224 of the current 433 members of the Republican-led chamber were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.
After talks with Arab League leaders in Paris, Kerry said: “All of us agree, not one dissenter, that Assad’s deplorable use of chemical weapons… crosses an international global red line.”
He said a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, were willing to sign a statement agreed by 12 of the G20 countries last week calling for a “strong” reaction to the alleged attack.
The German newspaper Bild, however, cited German naval intelligence as saying Assad did not personally approve the August attack.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif slammed the potential strikes against Syria as “illegal,” saying such military action was barred under the United Nations charter.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem heads to Russia for talks today with Syria’s key ally. Russia has vehemently opposed the US plans for strikes on Syria.
On the ground in Syria, rebels including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, were said to have taken control of the historic Christian town of Maalula, north of Damascus.