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Obama and Assad take to airwaves as Syria vote looms

Photo: AFP

US President Barack Obama and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad take to the airwaves in the US on Monday in an attempt to sway a sceptical nation as Congress returns from a summer recess to debate a military intervention in Syria.


The international community braced for a public relations blitz at the start of a decisive week on the Syria conflict as the US Congress gears up for a vote on a military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

US President Barack Obama is taking his case for an intervention to major US news networks and cable channels ahead of an address to the nation on Tuesday.

Not to be outdone, Assad has also attempted to sway US public opinion by granting a weekend interview to US journalist Charlie Rose in Damascus, which will be aired on primetime Monday on the public broadcast station, PBS.

In pre-broadcast interviews, Rose revealed that Assad denied the Obama administration’s assertion that he had deployed the lethal nerve gas sarin against his own people. But Assad would not say whether he has access to chemical weapons.

The US accuses Assad's forces of killing 1,429 people in a chemical weapons attack on August 21 in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

In his interview with Rose on Sunday, Assad said it was up to the US to prove that his forces were behind the Damascus attack.

"There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people," he told the network.

Assad also "suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made," PBS revealed.

US lawmakers return from their summer recess on Monday to start debating Obama's plan to launch a "limited, narrow" strike. Both the Senate and House of Representatives could vote on the issue as early as Wednesday.

Despite public backing from leaders of both political parties for a military intervention, many lawmakers have said they remain undecided as opinion polls show intense scepticism amongst the American public about another Middle Eastern engagement.

An ABC-BBC poll found more than one-third of Congress members were undecided about an intervention - and a majority of those who had made a decision said they would vote against the president.

Working the phones, TV networks and briefings

The media blitz moved into full gear over the weekend, with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough doing the rounds of five Sunday talk shows on major US networks. “An extremely busy day, appearing on all the TV talk shows here and repeating the same message that this is not, the White House argues, a test of President Obama’s credibility, but it’s a test, they say, of the US Congress and the broader world community, ” said FRANCE 24’s Simon Marks, reporting from Washington.

US lawmakers returning from their summer recess faced packed schedules with briefings set with top Obama administration officials, including Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power ahead of Wednesday’s vote.


Behind the scenes, Washington has been abuzz with town-hall meetings, dinners and urgent phone calls, said Marks. “President Obama was working the phones, calling members of Congress from both parties in an attempt to twist arms and secure support for his proposed military strikes in Syria,” he explained.

US Secretary of State John Kerry returns from a four-nation European diplomatic shuffle to a packed schedule of briefings with US lawmakers early this week.

Kerry’s European trip included a stop in France, where he attempted to convince a sceptical French public to support President François Hollande’s commitment to join a US intervention in Syria.

The US secretary of state also met with key Arab foreign ministers in Paris on Sunday, a day after holding meetings with his EU counterparts in Lithuania.

At a press conference in Paris after meeting with Arab foreign ministers, Kerry revealed that they were leaning towards supporting the G20 statement calling for a strong international response.

The EU issued a joint statement on Saturday blaming the Syrian government for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, but noting that any military action against Assad’s regime should be held off until UN weapons inspectors have published a report on their findings.



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