Washington was Sunday engaged in a diplomatic offensive at home and abroad with U.S. President Barack Obama gearing for an all-out push to persuade skeptical Americans to back strikes against the Syrian regime.
With U.S. lawmakers returning Monday from a summer break and set to debate whether to approve limited U.S. military action in Syria, a crucial week looms for America with the U.S. commander-in-chief facing a defining moment in his two-term presidency.
Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday continued a diplomatic offensive in Europe to lay out the case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused of unleashing chemical weapons against his people last month, as the U.S. also seeks to build global support for U.S. strikes.
Assad, in a rare interview with a U.S. network, denied ordering the suspected August 21 attack on a Damascus suburb, and issued a veiled warning to the American people not to become militarily involved in the rebellion against him which has cost some 100,000 lives since it erupted in March 2011.
But after talks with Arab League leaders in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John 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 G20 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 Saudi Arabia was among those who had signed on.
“They have supported the strike and they have supported taking action,” Kerry said.
After winning only limited global backing though at last week’s G20 summit, Obama will blitz U.S. networks on Monday evening before addressing the American people from the Oval Office on Tuesday aiming to lay out the case to deepen U.S. involvement in a two-year-old war which has claimed over 100,000 lives.
The stakes are high, with Obama far from guaranteed of winning a green light from Congress, amid American fears of being dragged deeper into the conflict and the risk of dangerous repercussions for allies such as Israel, which on Sunday deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system west of Jerusalem.
It remains unclear whether Obama would decide to go it alone if he fails to win congressional approval.
While a resolution for a military strike is likely to pass the Senate controlled by Obama’s Democrats, according to a Washington Post survey some 224 of the current 433 members of the Republican dominated House were either “no” or “leaning no” on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike.
Assad on Sunday warned that as Syria braces for military action, there could be a bitter consequences. “There’s no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” he reportedly told CBS television, in the interview to be aired Monday.
And he said 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.
A top White House official said Sunday the Obama administration is planning “for every contingency” in case of any fallout from U.S. military strikes.
“We have to obviously be very careful and very targeted and very limited in our engagement so we do not get dragged into the middle of this. And then there’s obviously risk of reaction and retaliation against our friends,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CNN.
He urged hesitant lawmakers to watch graphic videos released at the weekend, said to be of the August attack, showing people, including children, writhing in pain on the ground and apparently foaming at the mouth and vomiting.
The Los Angeles Times reported meanwhile that the Pentagon was preparing for three days of attacks on Syria, longer than originally planned.
War planners now aim to unleash a heavy barrage of missile strikes to be followed swiftly by additional attacks on targets that may have been missed or remain standing after the initial launch, the newspaper cited officials as saying.
A U.S. defense official told AFP the scale and purpose of the operation against Syria has not changed in recent weeks, although U.S. forces would adjust as needed.
“We will continue to review our targeting and targeting options as the Syrian government adapts over time,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif on Sunday slammed the potential strikes against Syria as “illegal”, saying such military action was barred under the United Nations charter.
“Civilized countries, 65 years ago, took the options off the table when they rejected in the charter of the United Nations resort to force as an illegal practice,” Zarif told journalists during a visit to Baghdad.
On the ground Syrian rebels, including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, were said to have taken control of the historic Christian town of Maalula, north of Damascus,