PARIS – Syria’s president warned Monday that the Middle East is a “powder keg” and potential Western military strikes against his country risk triggering a regional war.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Bashar Assad also was quoted as saying that Syria has challenged the United States and France to provide proof to support their allegations that Damascus has used chemical weapons, but that the leaders of both countries “have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples.”
President Barack Obama and his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, have accused Assad’s regime of carrying out a deadly chemical attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus Aug. 21. The Syrian government denies the allegations, and blames opposition fighters.
Obama initially seemed poised to launch military action, but abruptly announced on Saturday he would first ask Congress for authorization. Hollande also has called for a forceful response against Assad, but is awaiting a decision from Washington first.
If the United States and France decide to strike, Assad said “everyone will lose control of the situation.”
“Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists,” he added.
Asked whether France, which has been a staunch supporter of the opposition, has become an enemy of Syria, Assad said that whoever contributes “financially and militarily to terrorists is an enemy of the Syrian people.”
“The French people are not our enemy, but the policy of their government is hostile to the Syrian people. Insofar as French government policy is hostile to the Syrian people, this state will be its enemy,” he said.
As the U.S. has been presenting its case to a wary public, the French government Monday published a nine-page intelligence synopsis that concluded that the Syrian regime launched an attack Aug. 21 that involved a “massive use of chemical agents.” The report also said that Assad government could carry out similar strikes in the future.
The United States said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Russia, which along with Iran has been a staunch supporter of Assad through the conflict, brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.
“What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday at the country’s top diplomatic school. “And when you ask for more detailed proof they say all of this is classified so we cannot show this to you.”
Lavrov said “there was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals.” He did not describe the tests further.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed Monday to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress. Two top Russian legislators suggested that to Putin, saying polls have shown little support among Americans for armed intervention in Syria to punish its regime for an alleged chemical weapons attack.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States received new physical evidence in the form of blood and hair samples that show sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack. It was not immediately clear whether that evidence had been shared with Russia.
U.N. chemical inspectors toured the stricken areas last week, collecting biological and soil samples, but it is not clear when they will present their findings.
The Obama administration has failed to bring together a broad international coalition in support of military action, having so far only secured the support of France.
Britain’s parliament narrowly voted against British participation in a military strike last week, despite appeals by Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Arab League has stopped short of endorsing a Western strike against Syria.
In an emergency meeting on Sunday, the 22-state League called on the United Nations and the international community to take “deterrent” measures under international law to stop the Syrian regime’s crimes, but could not agree on whether to back U.S. military strikes.
Russia or China would likely veto any U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning a Western strike against Syria.
China is “highly concerned” about possible unilateral military action against Syria and believes the international community must “avoid complicating the Syrian issue and dragging the Middle East down into further disaster,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Monday.
In Washington, the Obama administration was lobbying to secure domestic support.
Obama was to meet Monday with former political rival Sen. John McCain at the White House, hoping the foreign policy hawk will help sell the idea of U.S. military intervention.
On Capitol Hill, senior administration officials briefed lawmakers in private on Sunday to explain why the U.S. was compelled to act against Assad. Further meetings were planned from Monday to Wednesday.
The Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad that later degenerated into a civil war. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict.
In Damascus, the Syria representative of the U.N. refugee agency, Tarik Kurdi, said that five million Syrians have been displaced inside the country by the war.
In addition, nearly 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, according to previous U.N. figures, bringing the total number of uprooted Syrians to about 7 million, or nearly one-third the country’s estimated population of 23 million.
Kurdi said the need for aid is far greater than what the international community has provided so far.
“Whatever efforts we have exerted and whatever the U.N. has provided in humanitarian aid, it is only a drop in the sea of humanitarian needs in Syria,” he told the Associated Press. The funding gap “is very, very wide,” he added.