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Assad defiant amid US strikes threat

02 September 2013, 09:12

Damascus - Syrian President Bashar Assad remained defiant on Sunday saying he was ready for any intervention after his US counterpart Barack Obama said he was seeking congressional approval for a military strike.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, the lead advocate for a military strike, in the meantime upped the ante, claiming on Sunday Washington has proof sarin gas was used by Assad's regime in a Damascus attack on 21 August.

In Cairo, the head of the Syria opposition National Coalition pleaded with Arab foreign ministers to back a US-led strike on the Damascus regime while Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said failure to do so would bolster Assad's forces to "pursue its crimes".

But Iran warned the US against attacking its ally Syria.

Assad, whose regime has faced an uprising since March 2011 that a watchdog says has claimed 110 000 lives, came out fighting on Sunday.

"Syria... is capable of facing up to any external aggression just as it faces up to internal aggression every day, in the form of terrorist groups and those that support them," Sana news agency quoted him as saying.

Syria continues to "record victory after victory", he added.

‘Hesitant, disappointed’

Assad's comments were his first since Obama in a huge political gamble, on Saturday committed the fate of US action to lawmakers, lifting the threat of immediate strikes.

In a move which could reshape the balance of power between Capitol Hill and the presidency, Obama said he believed it was important to secure support from Congress to wage war.

This effectively pushed military action back until at least 9 September, when US lawmakers return from their summer recess.

Obama said he had decided a 21 August chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, that Washington says killed more than 1 400 people, was so heinous that he would respond with a limited strike.

To press the case, Kerry told US televisions that hair and blood samples given to the United States from emergency workers on the scene of the 21 August showed signs of the powerful sarin nerve gas.

Kerry blitzed the Sunday morning television talk shows to relaunch his bid to build the case for US military strikes in Syria, urging his former colleagues in Congress to give Obama the green-light.

Syria Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad urged US lawmakers to show "wisdom" in their vote, while labelling Obama "hesitant, disappointed and confused".

Muqdad also launched a broadside against France, which supports military action against Damascus, accusing its leaders of being "irresponsible" and trying to dupe their own people.

The opposition National Coalition expressed disappointment with Obama for putting on hold military action and the group's leader Ahmed al-Jarba urged Arab states to press the West to act.

"I am here before you today to appeal to your brotherly and humanitarian sentiments and ask you to back the international operation against the destructive war machine" of the Syrian regime, he told Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo.

A separate statement urged American lawmakers to back Obama.

The Saudi foreign minister, addressing the Cairo meeting, also called for action against the Assad regime.

"Opposition to international action only encourages the regime to pursue its crimes," Saud al-Faisal said. "It is time to ask the international community to assume its responsibilities and to take deterrent measures."

But Syria's ally Iran warned the United States against going ahead with a military strike.

"The Americans cannot threaten the countries of the region and expect that their own interests will not be threatened," Allaeddine Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, told reporters in Damascus.

Chemical arsenal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said a US strike would be in "violation of international law".

"Mr Obama cannot interpret and construe international law for his own [benefit]," Zarif told reporters after a late afternoon cabinet meeting, the ISNA news agency reported.

A French government source meanwhile said Paris will soon declassify secret defence documents detailing Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons in defiance of international conventions.

The comment came after the Journal du Dimanche weekly said French intelligence agents had compiled information showing that some of the weapons had been stockpiled for nearly 30 years.

The arsenal included over 1 000 tonnes of chemical agents, the paper said.

On Saturday Obama said the US military is poised to react at any time.

"The chairperson of the joint chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose," he said.

"Our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now."

At least five US warships armed with scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles are in the eastern Mediterranean ready to launch strikes on Syrian regime targets.

A team of UN inspectors spent four days investigating last week's alleged chemical attacks on suburbs of Damascus.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that analysis of samples taken at the site would take up to three weeks.

On Sunday UN chief Ban Ki-moon spoke with chief inspector Ake Sellstrom urging him to "expedite the mission's analysis of the samples," a spokesperson said.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis called for the world to unite in a day of fasting and prayer for Syria on Saturday and said "God and history" would judge anyone using chemical weapons.

According to new figures released on Sunday by the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, more than 110 000 people have died since the Syrian conflict erupted.



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