WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama prepared on Sunday for a week of salesmanship, including six televised interviews and a national address to the American people.
He will make his case to a skeptical public that punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons is a national security imperative of the US.
“I know that the American people are weary after a decade of war, even as the war in Iraq has ended and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. That’s why we’re not putting our troops in the middle of somebody else’s war,” Obama said in his weekly address on Sunday, in a preview of his address to the nation set for Tuesday night.
“But we are the United States of America,” he then continued. “We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria.”
A failure to respond would “increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again,” and they could fall into the hands of terrorists who might release them in Europe or the United States, the president said.
“It would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.”
Congress reconvenes on Monday after a month-long summer break, during which Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad allegedly used gas to kill more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus, including hundreds of children.
But despite an aggressive lobbying campaign primed to begin as soon as Congress returns, the odds are not in the president’s favor that the House of Representatives will vote to authorize force in Syria. With 120 House members already declaring their opposition to the measure, the president will have to win more than two-thirds of the undecided votes.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough made the rounds on Sunday television shows across all the major American broadcast networks, to explain Obama’s case. There was “no question” that Assad had ordered the attack, McDonough said.
“Not a single member of Congress has rebutted the intelligence, as I’ve consulted with them,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And the question then becomes what are the consequences for him for having done this, and what does the world read from how we react to it?” But a report out of Germany on Sunday cast doubt on that claim, while acknowledging that Assad’s forces almost certainly perpetrated the attack.
Assad regime brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the more than four months, according to radio messages German spies intercepted, but permission had always been denied, Bild am Sonntag reported, sourcing German intelligence officers.
Assad granted an interview to American TV journalist Charlie Rose on Sunday, set to air during Obama’s flurry of interviews on Monday night, in which he categorically denied ordering the use of chemicals and avoided confirming that his regime has stockpiled massive amounts of the type of gas used in the attack.
Previewing the interview – Assad’s first to a US outlet in more than two years – Rose said that Assad seemed worried that a Western attack would cripple his army and warned that he would retaliate against American interests.
Visiting neighboring Iraq, Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that an American strike against Syria risked sparking a larger conflagration in the Middle East – just as McDonough told US journalists that such a strike would send a powerful message of resolve to Tehran.
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“We are concerned about warmongering in this region,” Zarif said while in Baghdad. “Those who are short-sighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone.”
Turkey added troops to its southeastern border on Sunday, as reports surfaced that Israel had deployed an Iron Dome missile defense battery in Jerusalem.
In Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry joined his French counterparts to press Arab League envoys and fellow Europeans to back strong action against Assad.
Kerry said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia publicly supports force against Syria.
But French President François Hollande said he was unlikely to lead his country into an operation with the US before the United Nations had completed and published the findings of its investigation on the ground in the suburb of Ghouta.
The report may be released as early as this week, officials say, in which case the US may revisit the UN Security Council before taking action.
“On President Hollande’s comments with respect to the UN, the president, and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” Kerry said. “No decision has been made by the president.”
Kerry’s summit in Paris with Arab League officials was originally scheduled to address the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Reuters contributed to this report.