Syrian President Bashar Assad warns U.S. against strike
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad is warning the U.S. of repercussions if it launches a military attack against him, as the Obama administration tries to convince a wary Congress to authorize a strike and Russia encourages Syria to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal to avoid one.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the surprise announcement Monday that Moscow was pressing its ally Syria to move its chemical weapons to areas under international control to avoid a U.S. military strike, with the Obama administration pressing ahead for action. President Barack Obama was blitzing the television airways with interviews on six Monday evening news broadcasts, while dispatching his senior foreign policy team to lobby Congress.
Assad granted an interview to American television journalist Charlie Rose to contradict accusations by the Obama administration that his government used sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Assad accused the Obama administration of spreading "lies" and said they have not presented a "single shred of evidence" to the public. He warned an attack could bring retaliation in the volatile region.
"It's area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything," Assad said in an interview broadcast on "CBS This Morning." Pressed on what those repercussions might include, Assad responded, "I'm not fortune teller."
"If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms," Assad said.
The White House was unmoved by Assad's denial. "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," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be confident going into any courtroom with the evidence gathered by the United States that Syria's government used chemical weapons against its people. "Words that are contradicted by fact," Kerry said during a news conference in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Kerry said if Assad wanted to defuse the crisis, "he could turn every single bit of his chemical weapons over to the international community" within a week. But he said that Assad "isn't about to do it."
Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry's suggestion that Assad turn over his chemical weapons was "a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Asad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
But Lavrov, who just wrapped up a round of talks in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, responded that Moscow would try to convince the Syrians. "We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," he said.
Lavrov said that he has already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a "quick, and, hopefully, positive answer."
Obama has a challenge to convince Congress to back a strike authorization, although leaders of both parties are supporting the measure. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against the plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.
"It's an uphill slog," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who supports strikes on Assad. "I think it's very clear he's lost support in the last week," Rogers added, speaking of the president.
Almost half of the 433 current members in the House and a third of the 100-member Senate remain undecided, the AP survey found. They will be the subject of intense lobbying from the administration -- as well as outside groups that have formed coalitions that defy the traditional left-right divide.
One of the two female Iraq war veterans in Congress said Monday she opposes the strikes, underscoring the administration's struggle in trying to rally Democrats to back the use of force. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii bemoaned the carnage in Syria after the chemical weapons attack, but said she has concluded that a U.S. military strike would be a serious mistake.
"As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan," Gabbard said in a statement. "The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria."
Public opinion surveys show intense American skepticism about military intervention in Syria, even among those who believe Syria's government used chemical weapons on its people.
A Monday evening briefing for lawmakers was being led by Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Marin Dempsey and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice. And Obama himself plans to a rare visit to Capitol Hill to lobby Senate Democrats personally on Tuesday, before addressing the nation from the White House Tuesday evening.
Obama plans interviews Monday evening with the network TV newscasts as well as CNN, Fox and PBS. Rice is scheduled for a Washington think tank speech timed to the public relations blitz aimed at assuring Americans the administration isn't contemplating another Iraq-Afghanistan style commitment.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is scheduled to speak Monday at a White House event on wildlife trafficking, planned to reiterate her support of Obama's efforts to pass the Syria resolution, according to a Clinton aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
The resolution before Congress would authorize the "limited and specified use" of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days. The measure bars American ground troops from combat. A final vote is expected at week's end and the House is expected to take up the issue the following week.