• Arab nations offer to pay for U.S. military attacks
• Damascus mobilises allies against reprisal strikes
UNITED States (U.S.) President Barack Obama has urged world support for punitive strikes against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, while Damascus vowed retaliation and resistance even if a third world war erupts.
On the heels of Obama’s call, Syria said Wednesday it was mobilising its allies against a possible U.S.-led military strike over a suspected gas attack and asserting that it would never give in.
In an exclusive interview with Agence France Presse (AFP), Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said Syria had taken “every measure” to retaliate against a potential strike, but refused to provide any clue as to what that might mean.
He also insisted that Russia had not wavered in its support for its long-time ally, despite comments by President Vladimir Putin suggesting a more conciliatory tone towards the West.
However, Arab nations have offered to help pay for any United States (U.S.) military intervention in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers yesterday as he sought support for missile strikes.
“With respect to Arab countries offering to bear the cost and to assist, the answer is profoundly yes, they have. That offer is on the table,” Kerry said as he appeared before a House of Representatives panel.
The offer was “quite significant,” he said.
“Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we’ve done it previously in other places, they’ll carry that cost. That’s how dedicated they are to this.”
Kerry spoke while appearing before the House Foreign Affairs committee on the second day of the administration’s blitz on Capitol Hill to persuade lawmakers to approve limited military strikes.
“We need to send to Syria – and to the world, to dictators and terrorists, to allies and civilians alike – the unmistakable message that when we say never again, we actually don’t mean sometimes, we don’t mean somewhere, we mean never again,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
However, American lawmakers have demanded changes to the authorisation for the use of U.S. military force against Syria before a crucial vote on Obama’s call for punitive strikes.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a three-hour, classified session to try to thrash out an agreement after Republican veteran Senator John McCain appeared to balk at the plan because it did not go far enough.
“Without the provision on reversing the momentum on the battlefield, then conditions are not created for the departure of (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad,” McCain told reporters after emerging from the briefing.
Kerry briefed the committee behind closed doors before rushing to provide testimony at a panel of the House of Representatives, where lawmakers and analysts foresee a tough fight over Obama’s military strike plan.
“As we debate, the world is watching and the world is wondering, not whether Assad’s regime actually did this,” Kerry added.
Democrat and Republican leaders in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had announced a bipartisan resolution and scheduled a markup and vote for mid-day Wednesday, but it got bumped back a few hours amid what was clearly dissent about the path forward.
Washington has led charges that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed sarin gas on August 21 against the residents of a Damascus suburb killing what a US intelligence report said was some 1,400 people.
But Putin Wednesday suggested Russia could approve military strikes against the Syrian regime if the West presented watertight evidence of chemical weapons crimes but warned the use of force without UN approval would be an “aggression”.
Also, a military source said yesterday that Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean are capable of reacting to an escalation in the Syria conflict, as Moscow fine tunes its maritime presence ahead of possible U.S. military action.
Meanwhile, Obama, fresh from efforts in Washington to secure bipartisan support for military intervention, said in Stockholm that the world had set “a red line” for Syria and it could not now remain silent in the face of the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said, referring to international rules banning the use of chemical weapons, even in case of war.
“My credibility is not on the line,” Obama said in remarks after arriving in Sweden for a two-day visit.
“The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important,” he said.
Obama’s trip will also take him to the G20 summit in Russia’s Saint Petersburg, where he is expected to rally support for, or at least acceptance of, moves to punish Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged deadly gas attack in Damascus suburbs last month.
White House officials have said Obama will hold meetings on the sidelines of G20 with the president of France, the main foreign backer of a strike on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.
While no formal bilateral meeting is planned with Putin, a strong supporter of Assad, a White House official suggested there likely would be some kind of dialogue.
In an interview with state-run Channel One television ahead of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg this week, Putin sought to adopt a more conciliatory tone on the Syria crisis, which had widened the rift between Russia and the West.
But in later comments at a Kremlin meeting with his human rights council, Putin warned the U.S. Congress that it would be legitimising an “aggression” if it gave its blessing to military action.
Asked in the interview whether Russia would agree with U.S.-led military strikes if it were proven that the Syrian regime had carried out the chemical attack, Putin replied: “I do not exclude that.”
But he said it would be unacceptable for the West to go ahead with military action against the regime of Assad without the assent of the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto-wielding permanent membership.
The G20 summit, which starts in Russia today, comes with many analysts describing U.S.-Russia relations as at their lowest ebb since Gorbachev helped end the Cold War two decades ago.
Meanwhile, large swathes of Syria were without electricity yesterday after a high voltage power line in the centre of the war-torn country was sabotaged, the electricity minister said.
“A terrorist attack against a high voltage line in the central region triggered a power cut in most of the Syrian governorates,” Imad Khamis said in comments carried on state television.
In government terminology, “terrorist” refers to rebels battling against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Districts of Damascus, suburbs of the Syrian capital and areas further afield were without electricity from yesterday morning, residents told AFP.
However, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad, in an exclusive interview with AFP, said his government was ready to retaliate in the event of a military strike.
“The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War III. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,” Muqdad said.
“Syria has taken every measure to retaliate against... an aggression,” he added, refusing to elaborate.
He also stressed that Syria’s important ally, Russia, had not wavered in its support, despite comments by Putin suggesting a more conciliatory tone towards the West.
Both Iran and Russia have warned that any military intervention would have devastating regional consequences.
Obama said in Stockholm that he hoped Putin would change direction on a military intervention in Syria.
“I’m always hopeful... Ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems,” he said.
Since British lawmakers voted down a bid to take any military action against Assad’s regime, Washington has found a strong partner in France but is seeking other allies.
France has vowed to “punish” Assad and this week released an intelligence report pinning the blame for the chemical attack on the regime.
The issue was being debated Wednesday by the French parliament in what is expected to be a fiery session, as pressure mounts on President Francois Hollande to follow Washington’s lead and put the matter to a vote.
Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action but, with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers are clamouring for a vote.
Ahead of the debate, Syria’s parliament speaker urged France “not to hasten” to act against his war-torn country.
“Syrian lawmakers are determined to get to the truth... and we ask you not to hasten to commit a heinous, senseless crime, as you must steer the French republic away from the war path and towards diplomacy,” Jihad Lahham said in a statement.
In Washington, top administration leaders were to keep up an offensive to win congressional support for military strikes against Syria.