President Barack Obama is blitzing American airwaves Monday in a bid to build support for a military strike against Syria, but he will be vying for viewership with an unexpected guest on U.S. network television – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. government says it has amassed evidence that Mr. al-Assad’s forces carried out a horrific chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds near Damascus. Mr. al-Assad, in a rare interview with U.S. media that will air on CBS and PBS, denies he was behind the attack and claims there is no conclusive evidence such an attack occurred.
The Syrian President also warns that a U.S. military strike would trigger retaliation by Syria and its allies, CBS reported Sunday in a preview of the interview. Allies of the Assad government include Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group based in Lebanon.
This is a crucial week for the U.S. President and his two-term presidency. Since announcing last week he would seek congressional authorization for a military strike, Mr. Obama has faced escalating opposition at home and abroad to his proposal.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to give interviews Monday to six TV networks before he addresses the American public Tuesday night in a televised speech. The Syrian civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives since it began in March, 2011.
Many Americans are reluctant to support military action after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough acknowledged in a round of media interviews Sunday. Mr. McDonough contended intervention in Syria would be narrow in scope.
“This is not Iraq or Afghanistan; this is not Libya; this is not an extended air campaign,” Mr. McDonough said on CNN’s State of the Union. “This is something that’s targeted, limited and effective so as to underscore that he [Mr. al-Assad] should not think that he can get away with this again.”
Canada is warning failure to hit back at the Syrian regime would give Mr. al-Assad the “green light” to gas his own people.
“If there is no response to this attack , what is preventing [Mr. al-Assad] from using [chemical weapons] again on a larger scale?” Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said on Sunday. “He’s going to have the green light to continue use chemical weapons to suppress his people.”
The question of whether to deepen American involvement in Syria will soon go before Congress, which resumes work Monday after a summer break. The first showdown is likely Wednesday in the Senate over a resolution authorizing 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 Senate vote is expected at the end of the week, while a House vote is likely during the week of Sept. 16.
Senior administration officials, including Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, will meet face to face with members of Congress in an attempt to turn the tide of opposition.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Obama would go it alone if he fails to win congressional approval. He won limited international support at last week’s G20 summit in Russia. While a dozen countries, including Canada, signed a statement calling for a strong reaction to the chemical weapons attack, the missive does not explicitly endorse military action.
Mr. Kerry said Sunday a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are willing to sign on to the statement. Russia, however, which holds veto power in the United Nations Security Council, is opposed to military action against Syria.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif on Sunday criticized potential strikes against Syria as “illegal,” saying such military action was barred under the UN charter.
On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned that the Syrian government sees chemical weapons as the key to winning the country’s bloody civil war and is testing how far the world will let it go.
“I fear that if no one does challenge it, they will use chemical weapons on a scale way beyond anything we have seen to date to win that war,” Mr. Harper told reporters at the conclusion of a G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. “If that happens, that is a precedent that humanity will regret for generations to come.”
With reports from Barrie McKenna in Ottawa and Globe and Mail wire services