Syria President Bashar al-Assad has denied ordering an Aug. 21 chemical attack that the U.S. government said killed nearly 1,500 people in a Damascus suburb. And, in an interview published Monday with the French newspaper Le Figaro, he warned France of “negative repercussions” should the country take punitive military action against Syria.
Assad’s comments come as international pressure against his regime increased following President Obama’s call for Congressional approval of military strikes there. The Obama administration is pushing for a punitive response to what it has described as irrefutable evidence of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. Obama had described any use of such weapons as a “red line” in the country’s more than two year old civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced more than one third of the country’s population. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were both expected to meet with Congressional leaders at the White House Tuesday.
French Prime Minister Francois Hollande was expected to brief parliamentarians on classified information pertaining to Syria’s chemical stockpiles Monday.
“France cannot go in alone,” French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview on Sunday, calling for an international coalition to back punitive strikes against the Assad regime. Hollande is under pressure to stage a vote in French parliament. A vigorous debate in Britain last week ended when the House of Commons rejected a preliminary resolution intended to pave the way for military action.
In declassified documents it made public on its Defense Ministry website, the French government said that Syria has one of the “most operational stocks” of chemical weapons in the world and that chemical agents were used in the August 21st attack against civilians. Officials said that France has kept Syria’s chemical weapons program under surveillance for some time and that, “the reduction is a major objective in our defense.”
The document, translated by NBC News, goes on to say that the Syrian government has several hundred tons of Mustard Gas, several dozen tons of VX—a toxic war chemical agent, and several hundred tons of sarin. In addition to the chemical weapons, the French Defense Ministry said Syria has the missile capacity to disperse the weapons over a long range.
Over Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military positioned three destroyers, one cruiser, and one aircraft carrier in the Red Sea as the Obama administration continued to brief lawmakers to rally support for military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, the Arab League issued a statement asserting Assad’s culpability in the chemical attack and called on the international community to “take the necessary measures against those who committed this crime.” The statement stopped short of specifically calling for military intervention by western nations.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that he is convinced Assad’s regime is responsible for the Aug. 21 attack which U.S. officials have called “a crime against humanity.”
“I have been presented with concrete information and, without going into details, I can tell you that personally I am convinced, not only that a chemical attack has taken place, but I am also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible,” Rasmussen said at a news conference.
With Russia and China expected to oppose any military action through the United Nations, Obama has been working with allies to cultivate support from NATO and the Arab League, as well as foreign leaders and Congress.
Lawmakers return from summer recess on Sept. 9, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Tuesday as part of the White House push to win Congressional support for any strike on Syria.