US President Barack Obama prepared his final public arguments for military strikes against Syria before the US Congress, which was to return from holiday yesterday, takes its first vote on the issue this week.
The US president took the rare step of scheduling six network interviews before addressing a skeptical public today.
In his own interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned there will be “repercussions” for the US for any strike launched in response to a chemical weapons attack.
On Sunday, he told US journalist Charlie Rose: “You should expect everything... You are going to pay the price if you are not wise with dealing with terrorists.’’
Al-Assad denied making a decision to use chemical weapons against his own people and said there is no conclusive evidence about who is to blame in the Aug. 21 attack that the US says killed more than 1,400 people.
“How can you talk about what happened if you don’t have evidence?” al-Assad said in the interview, in which he spoke English.
“We’re not like the American administration, we’re not like the social media administration or government. We’re the government that deals with evidence,” he said.
Al-Assad said that his forces had themselves been attacked by rebels using chemical arms.
“But in the area where they say the government used chemical weapons, we only have video and we only have pictures and allegations. We’re not there. Our forces, our police, our institutions don’t think this,” he said.
Asked whether the repercussions he predicted could include the use of more chemical weapons, the Syrian leader replied: “That depends. If the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen. I don’t know. I’m not a fortune teller to tell you what’s going to happen.”
Even before the interview was released, the White House criticized it.
“It doesn’t surprise us that someone who would kill thousands of his own people, including hundreds of children with poison gas, would also lie about it,’’ spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.
Congress is set to have its first votes authorizing limited strikes into Syria as early as tomorrow. The resolution would authorize the “limited and specified use’’ of US armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and bars US ground troops from combat.
Obama is arguing that limited strikes against Syria are needed for the US’ long-term safety and will address the US in a prime-time speech from the White House today.
Yesterday, top administration officials were heading to Congress for more classified briefings and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice was scheduled for a speech at a Washington think tank as part of the administration’s argument that it is not contemplating another commitment like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Russia’s and Syria’s foreign ministers said they will push for the return of UN inspectors to Syria to continue their probe into the use of chemical weapons.
The chemical weapons inspection team took samples from the Aug. 21 attack several days after it occurred and they are being analyzed now. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said after yesterday’s talks with Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem that Moscow will continue to promote a peaceful settlement and may try to convene a gathering of all Syrian opposition figures who are interested in peaceful settlement.
Lavrov said a US attack would be a fatal blow to peace efforts.
China urged the US to proceed with extreme caution and return to the UN to discuss Syria after Washington said it was not seeking UN Security Council approval for action.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) said countries should “think thrice” before acting and exercise “extreme caution.”
The US “should return to the UN Security Council framework to seek consensus and appropriately handle the Syria issue,” Wang told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone call on Sunday night.
“It is high time to let reason prevail over recklessness,” Xinhua news agency said in a commentary, which reflects official thinking.