Syrian government defiant as French, US senates debate military action

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French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, left, delivers a speech during a debate about a military intervention in Syria at the French National Assembly in Paris, on 4 September 2013. (Photo: AFP - Patrick Kovarik)

Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday the government would not give in to threats of a US-led military strike against the country, even if a third world war erupts.

Meanwhile, France’s parliament was set for a fiery debate on military action in Syria Wednesday as pressure mounts on President Francois Hollande to follow Washington's lead and put the issue to a vote.

In an exclusive interview with AFP, Faisal Muqdad said the government had taken "every measure" to counter a potential intervention aimed at punishing the government of Bashar al-Assad over a suspected deadly poison gas strike.

"The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War III. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country," he said.

"Syria has taken every measure to retaliate against... an aggression," he added, refusing to provide any clue as to what that might mean.

Washington says the alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21 in suburbs of Damascus killed more than 1,400 people and blames it on Assad – a claim the Syrian government categorically denies.

France's Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action, but with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers are clamoring for a vote.

The public is as well, with a poll released on the eve of the debate showing nearly three quarters of the French saying they want a vote on military action.

"The debate is going to be tense," newspaper Liberation wrote Wednesday. "After (US President) Barack Obama's decision to consult Congress... Francois Hollande should make parliament vote to establish the legitimacy of his action."

Hollande's government has not ruled out a vote, but he will be keen to avoid an embarrassing rejection of military strikes like the one suffered last week by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

France has vowed to "punish" Assad for the alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21 and this week released an intelligence report pinning the blame for the assault on the Syrian government.

In a letter to French lawmakers, Syria's parliament speaker on Wednesday urged them not to support military action.

"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 published by the SANA official news agency.

"Despite the tragedies that hit Iraq before, some are looking for another war to destroy secular Syria, which would lead to a confessional conflict in the region and would increase current human suffering."

The French debate comes as Obama lobbies Congress to back US strikes when it returns from its summer break on Monday.

France has emerged as the key US ally in taking action against Assad, after Britain's House of Commons rejected military action.

Hollande's Socialists are largely supportive of strikes, but other leading parliamentary factions have raised doubts, including the main opposition right-wing UMP.

The UMP has said military action should be put to a vote unless two conditions are met: UN inspectors confirming the use of chemical weapons and the passing of a UN resolution giving a legal basis for using force.

The head of the UMP's faction in the lower house National Assembly, Christian Jacob, said Hollande did not yet have the clear-cut legitimacy to order military strikes.

"(France) is isolated as it has never been before, is not supported by any European country and is dependent on a vote of the US Congress," he said.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was to address the National Assembly and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to appear before the upper house Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

The divisions in France over action in Syria are in sharp contrast to the widespread support Hollande enjoyed when he launched a military intervention in Mali earlier this year.

The minister in charge of relations with parliament, Alain Vidalies, said a vote on Syria was "possible" and that "the subject is not taboo."

But senior Socialists have made little secret of their distaste for a vote.

"There is no question of imposing a vote on the president," National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone said, adding that "the moment when a dictator is threatening France" is not the time to change how the country decides to take military action.

President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the credibility of the US Congress was on the line in the need to respond to the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

"My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line," Obama told a news conference in Sweden.

"America and Congress' credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important," Obama added.

Obama said he would not repeat mistakes made in Iraq, adding he believed he would get Congressional backing for strikes.

"I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq. And I am not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence," he told a briefing in the Swedish capital.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee may delay a vote on an authorization for the use of military force in Syria that was expected on Wednesday, aides to committee members said, after some senators said they were unhappy with its wording.

Senators from the 18-member committee were in a classified hearing on Syria on Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

The committee had been expected to vote on Wednesday in a business meeting starting at 11:30am on a draft authorization for the use of force in Syria that is narrower than the request made by President Barack Obama.

But some members, including the influential Republican Senator John McCain, said they were unhappy with the compromise crafted on Tuesday by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the committee's chairman, and Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the panel.

UN experts traveled to Syria last week and visited the sites of the alleged August 21 poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs. They left the country on Saturday with numerous samples, which are currently being analyzed.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Wednesday that Turkey would take part in any international coalition against Syria, but stopped short of saying whether that would include military action.

"We have said that we are ready to take part in any kind of coalition and we perceive this as a coalition of volunteers," Erdogan said without elaborating, shortly before leaving for the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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