International

Assad warns of 'chaos' in Middle East should US launch military strikes

Syrian president warns of dangerous repercussions as Obama pushes Congress to approve military action

President Assad warned of negative repercussions if France supported a U.S.-led strike on Syria.
Yuri Kadobnov/ AFP/ Getty Images

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the Middle East as a "powder keg" Monday, saying the region would "explode" if the United States and its allies execute a military strike on Syria. His warning came as the Obama administration pushed legislators to approve punitive military action over last month’s alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

"The Middle East is a powder keg and the fire is approaching today," Assad told French newspaper Le Figaro.

"You can’t only talk about what the Syrian response will be, but what could happen after a first strike. And no one knows what would happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes," he said.

"Chaos and extremism will be widespread," he warned. "The risk of a regional war exists."

Assad said he did not regard the people of France as enemies, but described the country’s policies as "hostile." France has indicated that it would support a U.S.-led strike on military targets in Syria.

"There will be repercussions, of course negative, on France’s interests" if that happens, Assad said.

A declassified French intelligence report released Monday pinned responsibility for last month's chemical weapons attack on the Assad government.

"The Syrian regime launched an attack on some suburbs of Damascus held by units of the opposition, combining conventional means with the massive use of chemical agents," it said.

"We believe the Syrian opposition does not have the capacity to carry out an operation of such magnitude with chemical agents."

Syria's War
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Earlier Monday, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari asked the United Nations to prevent "any aggression" against the country.

In a letter to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and President of the Security Council Maria Cristina Perceval, he urged "the U.N. Secretary General to shoulder his responsibilities for preventing any aggression on Syria and pushing forward reaching a political solution to the crisis in Syria," state news agency SANA reported.

He called on the Security Council to "maintain its role as a safety valve to prevent the absurd use of force out of the frame of international legitimacy."

Washington says more than 1,400 people, many of them children, were killed in what many believe to be the world's worst use of chemical arms since Iraq's Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been the public face of the administration as it lays out evidence to bolster the claim that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to further the case.

"This is squarely now in the hands of Congress," Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence lawmakers "will do what is right because they understand the stakes."

International governments have in recent days opted against military actoin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opposition in the nation's upcoming elections joined Britain in rejecting proposed intervention in Syria in a televized debate Sunday.

U.S. military action will be put to a vote in Congress, which ends its summer recess on Sept. 9. The delay could give Assad time to prepare the ground for any assault and try to rally international support against the use of force.

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that Obama has a good chance of winning approval in the Democratic-led Senate, but the vote appears too close to call in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the president's opponents have often blocked him.

The White House was in talks with House Democrats by telephone on Monday, and Obama will meet with the heads of several key House and Senate committees in person on Tuesday.

In an encouraging sign for the president, one of his most hawkish critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, appeared to give his support to the congressional resolution, saying that a no vote would be "catastrophic" for US interests. But he added that there was no concrete agreement despite encouraging talks with the president.

Obama's move to seek congressional approval for any military action was called the start of an "historic American retreat" by a Syrian state newspaper on Sunday.

The paper also said that Obama's reluctance to take military action stemmed from his "sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies." It said the American leader's worry about limited intervention turning into "an open war has pushed him to seek Congress' consent."

Syria denies using chemical weapons and accuses rebel groups, who have been fighting for more than two years to topple Assad, of using the banned weapons.

Ja'afari said Kerry had "adopted old stories fabricated by terrorists" based on fake photos from the Internet.

Moscow, Assad's key ally, weapons supplier and protector at the United Nations, has also rejected U.S. evidence.  

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the information about the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria that Washington provided to Moscow was not specific enough to be called proof.

"We were shown some findings which contained no specifics -- neither geographical coordinates, nor names, nor proof that tests had been carried out by professionals," Lavrov said Monday in an address at Russia's top diplomatic school. He did not say to which tests he was referring.

Russian legislators said Monday that they would seek a dialogue with the U.S. Congress on Syria.

"I think if we manage to establish a dialogue with our partners in the U.S. Congress, we hope that the U.S. Congress will occupy a balanced position in the end and, without strong arguments in place ... will not support the proposal on use of force in Syria," Valentina Matviyenko, chairman of the upper house of Russian parliament, told Reuters.

At least 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which started in March 2011 with protests against four decades of Assad family rule.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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