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Assad warns of 'repercussions' as Congress begins debate on Syria

Syrian president says to 'expect everything' if US attacks as Obama continues push for air strikes; UN seeks alternative

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is interviewed by CBS and PBS anchor Charlie Rose in a photo released on Monday.
CBS/Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned the United States against striking his country and denied using chemical weapons against his own people, as President Barack Obama embarked on a media campaign Monday to push for air strikes on Syria and Congress reconvened from its summer recess.

In a CBS interview, his first with an American television network in two years, Assad said an attack by international forces may prompt retaliation from Syria's allies. He also denied using chemical weapons attack on Syrians, adding that evidence was not conclusive that there had been such an attack last month.

"There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people," CBS on Sunday quoted Assad as saying in an interview conducted by Charlie Rose in Damascus.

Involvement in the Syrian war runs against the interests of the United States, Assad added during the CBS News interview. He also warned about "repercussions" if the U.S. strkes Syria: "Expect every action," he said.

The full interview will be broadcast Monday night, and will be juxtaposed against a spate of interviews by Obama as he pushes for the authorization of air strikes in Syria. Obama will tape interviews with six media networks, including PBS, CNN and FOX News.

In a surprise move, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Moscow will push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control to help avert a possible U.S. attack.

"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.

Lavrov said he conveyed the idea to his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem, who later said he welcomed the Russian proposal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when asked whether there were steps Syria could take to avoid a U.S. strike, he said Assad could "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," but expressed skepticism that such a thing would actually happen. Kerry later clarified to Lavrov that his comments were rhetorical.

United Nation's Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he is considering asking the Security Council to demand that Syria transfer its chemical weapons stockpiles to "safe sites" in Syria where they could be stored and later destroyed. Ban said the Security Council suffered from "embarrassing paralysis" on Syria and needs to overcome the deadlock.

The U.S. has said it has intelligence showing that the Assad regime is responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which it says killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 426 children.

Obama has slowed his march toward intervention, saying he would seek congressional authorization in response to a growing outcry from the body for consultation.

Efforts by Obama and Kerry to build an international coalition in support of air strikes in Syria have been seemingly unsuccessful, at least in the short-term.  

'War drums'

Kerry was in Europe over the weekend pleading the case for greater backing from world leaders for the proposed strikes. 

At a press conference Monday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry said he understood the fears Americans have of repeating the Iraq war, but said "the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting."

He said the chemical weapons are under the tight control of Assad himself, his brother Mahar and an unspecified general.

Earlier Monday, in Moscow, Russian and Syrian diplomats urged the U.S. to focus on convening a peace conference to end the civil war instead of taking military action against Assad's government.

"We are in Moscow at a time when the war drums are being beaten, the war drums of the goverment of the United States," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said before talks with Russia's Lavrov. 

Lavrov, whose country says it believes rebels are responsible for the chemical attack on civilians, warned that U.S. strikes could lead to the spread of terrorism. 

Battle for Congress' support

Syria's war
Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of the conflict in Syria

Obama has acknowledged that he will face a "heavy lift" to win congressional support. According to a recent count by The Washington Post, the House appears to be leaning away from authorizing a strike. The count shows that there are 223 members of Congress in the "no" or "leaning no" categories -- more than the 217 needed to sink a vote.

In the Senate, however, the odds seem to be better. A majority of the senators are undecided. Fifteen senators have expressed opposition to intervention, and 10 are leaning toward saying no, according to the Washington Post.

The Obama administration's campaign has failed to convince former House representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), who told Al Jazeera in an interview that the U.S. should not get involved in the Syrian civil war.

"If any country, including Syria, if they attack the United States, threatened us or came and bombed us or sent a drone missile over here or something, that might qualify as a requirement to retaliate. But under today’s circumstances, I can’t imagine any moral justification for us getting involved in another war because it’s been morally unjustified for the involvement that we’ve had already. It certainly isn't authorized under the consititution that we should be the policeman of the world," Paul told Al Jazeera's Libby Casey.

House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will back Obama's "call to action" on Syria, and called on his colleagues in the House to do the same. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) has also expressed support for intervention.

Despite their leadership's support for intervention, Republican and Democratic lawmakers remain wary of authorizing strikes in Syria. The vote for the Iraq war, based on faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, casts a shadow over their current decision.

Obama has not said what he will do if Congress votes against the proposed air strikes. 

There is still debate in the international community over who ordered the gas attack.

The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported Sunday that German intelligence raises doubts about whether Assad actually ordered the chemical attack, saying that Syrian government forces may have carried out the attack close to Damascus without Assad's permission.

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the presidential palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four-and-a-half months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the paper said.

Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) could not be reached for comment.

Polls show that the U.S. is skeptical of military involvement in Syria. A Gallup poll published Friday found that just 36 percent of Americans backed military intervention in Syria, with 51 percent opposed.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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