PARIS – France released an intelligence report Monday alleging chemical weapons use by Syria’s regime that dovetailed with similar U.S. claims, as President Bashar Assad warned that any military strike against his country would spark an uncontrollable regional war and spread chaos and extremism.
The verbal crossfire, including a rejection of the Western allegations by longtime Syrian ally Russia, was part of frenzied efforts on both sides to court international public opinion after President Barack Obama said he would seek authorization from Congress before launching any military action against Assad’s regime.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad was quoted as saying that Syria has challenged the U.S. and France to provide proof to support their allegations, but that their leaders have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples.
If the Americans, the French or the British had a shred of proof, they would have shown it beginning on the first day, he said, deriding Obama as weak and having buckled to U.S. domestic political pressure.
We believe that a strong man is one who prevents war, not one who inflames it, Assad said.
French President Francois Hollande and Obama have been the two world leaders most vocally calling for action against Assad’s regime, accusing it of carrying out a deadly chemical attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
It has marked an intolerable escalation in a two-year civil war in Syria that has left some 100,000 people dead.
The Syrian government denies the allegations and blames opposition fighters. In the Figaro interview, Assad questioned whether an attack took place at all and refused to say whether his forces have chemical weapons, as is widely believed.
If the U.S. and France strike, Everyone will lose control of the situation ... Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists, he added.
To back up its case, the French government published a nine-page intelligence synopsis Monday that concluded Assad’s regime had launched an attack on Aug. 21 involving a massive use of chemical agents and could carry out similar strikes in the future.
In all, though, the French report provided little new concrete evidence beyond what U.S. officials provided over the weekend in Washington.
In the Figaro interview, Assad said all the accusations are based on allegations of the terrorists and on arbitrary videos posted on the Internet.
Around the time of the attack, Assad’s regime feared a possible opposition strike on Damascus: Our evaluation is that the regime was looking to loosen the vise and secure the strategic sites for the control of the capital, the report said.
The synopsis also said French intelligence services had collected urine, blood, soil and munitions samples from two attacks in April – in Saraqeb and Jobar – that confirmed the use of sarin gas.
France is determined to take action against the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad, and to dissuade it from doing so again, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after hosting lawmakers to discuss the intelligence on Syria. This act cannot go without a response.
France won’t act alone, and Hollande was continuing his work of persuasion to bring together a coalition, Ayrault said. French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. The French constitution doesn’t require such a vote for Hollande, though he could decide to call for one.
Russia, which along with Iran has been a staunch supporter of Assad through the conflict, brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.
What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday before the French report was released. And when you ask for more detailed proof, they say all of this is classified, so we cannot show this to you.’
There was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals, he said, without identifying which tests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the U.S. to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress. Two top Russian legislators suggested that to Putin, pointing to polls that have shown little support among Americans for armed intervention in Syria.
U.N. chemical inspectors toured the stricken areas last week, collecting biological and soil samples. A U.N. statement said the team worked around the clock to finalize preparations of the samples, which were shipped Monday afternoon from The Hague and would reach their designated labs within hours, the statement said.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to brief the Security Council’s 10 non-permanent members on the Syria crisis this morning.
The Obama administration has failed to bring together a broad international coalition in support of military action. Britain’s Parliament narrowly voted against the country’s participation in any military strike last week, despite appeals by Prime Minister David Cameron. The Arab League has stopped short of endorsing a Western strike against Syria.