PARIS -- France released an intelligence report on 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.
“The Middle East is a powder keg, and today the flame is coming very near. We cannot talk merely about the Syrian response, but about what might take place after the first strike. But nobody knows what will happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war,” Assad said in an interview published Monday by French newspaper Le Figaro.
Last week, the U.S. laid out its intelligence assessment, blaming Assad’s forces for an Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus that killed, according to the U.S., 1,429 people, including 426 children.
The U.S., with warships at the ready in the Mediterranean, appeared poised to launch missile strikes against Assad forces, but President Obama announced Saturday that he would seek congressional approval for any military action.
On Sunday, Kerry said the U.S. received new physical evidence in the form of blood and hair samples that shows sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack. Kerry said the U.S. must respond with its credibility on the line.
“We know that the regime ordered this attack,” he said. “We know they prepared for it. We know where the rockets came from. We know where they landed. We know the damage that was done afterwards.”
Mr. Obama has faced resistance to the proposed strike both internationally and domestically, but France has backed the American position. On Monday, the French government released its own intelligence estimate, concluding that the Assad regime launched the attack involving “massive use of chemical agents” and could carry out other strikes of a similar nature in the future. The confirmed death toll cited in the French estimate - based in part from dozens of videos culled by French intelligence services - was at least 281, lower than the American toll.
Assad dismissed the findings from both countries.
“It is for those who are making the accusations to provide the proof. We have challenged the United States and France to put forward a single proof. Obama and Hollande have been unable to do so, even to their own people. ... I’m not at all suggesting that the Syrian army does or does not possess such weapons. Let’s suppose that our army wishes to use WMD: is it really going to do so in an area where it is actually present and where soldiers have been wounded by these weapons, as the UN inspectors found during their visit to the hospital where they were being treated? Where is the logic in that?”
U.N. chemical inspectors toured the stricken areas last week, collecting biological and soil samples, but it is not clear when they will present their findings.