WASHINGTON: The White House begins Monday a final push to win support from a divided Congress and skeptical American public for a military strike on Syria as President Bashar Assad denied that he was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack.
President Barack Obama’s top aide pressed the case for “targeted, limited consequential action” to degrade Assad’s capabilities to carry out chemical attacks during a five-network public relations blitz to build support for military action.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said a “common-sense test” dictates the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack that Obama says demands a U.S. response. But he said the Obama administration lacked “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” that lawmakers who will start voting on military action this week are seeking.
“The common-sense test says he is responsible for this. He should be held to account,” McDonough said of the Syrian leader who for two years has resisted calls from inside and outside his country to step down.
McDonough pressed the case for “targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade” the capabilities of Assad’s regime “to carry out these terrible attacks again.The U.S., citing intelligence reports, says sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children.
In an interview Sunday, Assad told U.S. journalist Charlie Rose that there was no conclusive evidence about who was to blame and again suggested that the rebels were responsible.
“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” CBS reported Assad as saying in an interview conducted in Damascus.
The Syrian leader added that he “had a message to the American people that it had not been a good experience for them to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts.”
He “suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made,” veteran CBS correspondent Charlie Rose told CBS.
Rose was describing from Beirut excerpts his interview that is set to be released Monday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
At the same time, Obama has planned his own public relations effort. He has scheduled five network interviews Monday and then a nationally televised speech from the White House Tuesday, the eve of the first votes in Congress.
The Democratic-led Senate is expected to hold Wednesday the first showdown vote over a resolution that would authorize the “limited and specified use” of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. A final vote is expected at week’s end.
A vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives appears likely during the week of Sept. 16.
Obama faces a tough audience on Capitol Hill. A survey by the Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against Obama’s plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.
A U.S. official released Saturday a DVD compilation of videos showing attack victims that the official said were shown to senators during a classified briefing on Thursday. The images have become a rallying point for the administration.
“Those videos make it clear to people that these are real human beings, real children, parents being affected in ways that are unacceptable to anybody, anywhere by any standards,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris. “And the United States of America that has always stood with others to say we will not allow this – this is not our values, it’s not who we are.”
Kerry continued a diplomatic offensive in Europe to lay out the case against Assad, as the U.S. also seeks to build global support for U.S. strikes.
He dismissed Assad’s claim to Rose that there was no evidence he used chemical weapons against his own people, saying “the evidence speaks for itself.”
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.”
Kerry said a number of Arab countries were willing to sign a statement agreed by 12 countries of the G-20 that called for a “strong” reaction to the alleged attack.
“Today we discussed the possible and necessary measures that can be taken,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia was among those who had signed on. “They have supported the strike and they have supported taking action.”
But Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif slammed the potential strikes against Syria as “illegal,” saying such military action was barred under the United Nations charter.
“I do not know why those who say all options are on the table do not understand the fact that civilized countries 65 years ago ... rejected in the charter of the United Nations [the] resort to force as an illegal practice,” Zarif said, breaking away from his native Farsi during a news conference to speak in English in comments clearly directed at the U.S. and its allies.