WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: Two U.S. Republicans foreign policy hawks warned Monday that a vote by Congress against President Barack Obama’s proposal for military force in Syria would be catastrophic, as President Bashar Assad warned any potential strikes risk triggering a regional war.
“If the Congress were to reject a resolution like this after the president of the United States has already committed to action, the consequences would be catastrophic,” Sen. John McCain said after a meeting with the president at the White House. McCain, a Republican, said he was encouraged by the meeting but that there was “a long way to go” to get the resolution passed.
McCain said that he and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham – who was also in the meeting with Obama – favored changes in the resolution that would broaden it to make it more than just a response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s government.
“We do want an articulation of a goal that over time will degrade Bashar Assad’s capabilities, increase and upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and the free Syrian government so they can increase the momentum on the battlefield,” McCain said.
Both have argued that Obama must oust Assad from power and seek to change the course of a civil war that has killed more than 110,000. And both have threatened to vote against Obama’s authorization if the military plan doesn’t seek to shift the momentum of the civil war toward the rebels.
Despite this, the White House said Monday it was prepared to rework language to address concerns from some lawmakers who fear a strike could open the door to possible use of ground troops or eventual attacks on other countries.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, in a chemical attack in Damascus.
Assad told French newspaper Le Figaro that Syria has challenged the U.S. and France to provide proof to support their allegations that Damascus has used chemical weapons, but that the leaders of both countries “have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples.”
If the U.S. and France decide to strike, Assad said “everyone will lose control of the situation.”
“Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists,” Assad added.
Asked whether France, which has been a staunch supporter of the opposition, has become an enemy of Syria, Assad said that whoever contributes “financially and militarily to terrorists is an enemy of the Syrian people.”
“The French people are not our enemy, but the policy of their government is hostile to the Syrian people. Insofar as French government policy is hostile to the Syrian people, this state will be its enemy,” he said.
As the U.S. has been presenting its case to a wary public, the French government Monday published a nine-page intelligence synopsis that concluded that the Syrian regime launched an attack on Aug. 21 that involved a “massive use of chemical agents.” The report also said that Assad government could carry out similar strikes in the future.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there would be no vote during Wednesday’s parliamentary debate on the crisis.
Russia brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.
“What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday at the country’s top diplomatic school. “And when you ask for more detailed proof they say all of this is classified so we cannot show this to you.”
Lavrov said “there was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals.” He did not describe the tests further.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed Monday to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the U.S. to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress. Two top Russian legislators suggested that to Putin, saying polls have shown little support among Americans for armed intervention in Syria to punish its regime for an alleged chemical weapons attack.On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. received new physical evidence in the form of blood and hair samples that show sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack. It was not immediately clear whether that evidence had been shared with Russia.
U.N. chemical inspectors toured the stricken areas last week, collecting biological and soil samples, but it is not clear when they will present their findings.
There was a brief lull in the intensity of shelling during the inspectors Damascus visit, but fierce fighting has now restarted in the city.
Nearly 90 rebels were killed near the Syrian capital over the past 48 hours, a watchdog said Monday, as fighting raged ahead of possible foreign military action against the regime.
At least 29 of those killed, among them non-Syrians, died in an army ambush Monday in Adra, northeast of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The activist group said security forces were also among those killed and wounded, without giving numbers.
Despite the political wrangling in Paris and Washington over intervention, USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and four other ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea early Monday, U.S. defense officials said, describing the move as “prudent planning” in case the ships are needed for military action.
The officials said the Nimitz entered the Red Sea around 6 a.m. EDT (10:00 GMT), but the strike group had not received any orders to move into the Mediterranean, where five U.S. destroyers and an amphibious ship remain poised for possible cruise missile strikes against Syria.
Simultaneously Russia is sending a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean, Interfax news agency reported.
The reconnaissance ship left Russia’s naval base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol late Sunday on a mission “to gather current information in the area of the escalating conflict,” the Interfax report quoted an unidentified military source as saying.