Bashar al-Assad on Monday challenged the West to provide "the slightest proof" that he used chemical weapons against his people. In the Syrian president's first response to claims that his forces killed more than 1,400 people in a gas attack, he said any Western military intervention could lead to "regional war" and would harm "the interests of France".
"Whoever accuses must provide proof. We have challenged the United States and France to provide the slightest proof. [US President Barack] Obama and [French President Francois] Hollande have been incapable [of doing so] even to their own people," Assad told the French newspaper, Le Figaro.
His warning came as Russia branded intelligence reports on Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons as "unconvincing". Assad questioned the "logic" of claims that his forces carried out the gas attack outside Damascus on Aug 21, which the US said killed more than 400 women and children.
"Supposing our army wishes to use weapons of mass destruction. Is it possible that it would do so in a zone where it is located and where [our] soldiers were wounded by these arms, as United Nations inspectors have noted during visits to hospitals where they were treated? Where is the logic?" he asked.
Describing the Middle East as a "powder keg" whose "fuse is getting shorter", he said it would "explode" if Western forces struck Syria. "Nobody knows what will happen [after such strikes]. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists," he warned.
Assad raised pressure on France to avoid military action two days ahead of a parliamentary debate on the issue. Two-thirds of French people are against participating, a poll suggested.
"Whoever contributes to financially or militarily to bolstering terrorists is an enemy of the Syrian people. Whoever is against the interests of Syria and its people is an enemy," said Assad.
"The French people are not our enemy. If the policies of the French state are hostile to the Syrian people, this state will be its enemy. This hostility will end when the French state changes its policies. There will be repercussions - negative, of course - against the interests of France," he said. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, on Monday dismissed intelligence reports about Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons as unconvincing.
Lavrov said military action could wreck any chance for peace. He claimed that evidence provided by the US, Britain, and France showing Assad's culpability for chemical weapons attacks was too vague. "What our American, British and French colleagues sent us more absolutely does not convince us," he said. "There are no facts. When you ask for details they say it is secret." Lavrov also warned that a planned peace conference in Geneva to end the Syrian conflict would be put off for a long time, "if not for ever", if the US went ahead with military action.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported yesterday that an intelligence ship was on its way to the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, the Assad regime asked the United Nations to stop the US from taking military action against Syria, claiming it wanted help to achieve a "political solution" to the civil war.
Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the UN, asked in a letter that Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, "shoulder his responsibilities for preventing any aggression on Syria". He called on the UN Security Council to "maintain its role as a safety valve to prevent the absurd use of force out of the frame of international legitimacy", according to the Syrian state media agency.
The US must "play its role as a peace sponsor" rather than "a state that uses force against whoever opposes its policies", Ja'afari said. Nato's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, yesterday said he was "personally convinced" that the Assad regime had carried out the poison gas attack in Damascus.
Barack Obama met John McCain last night to ask for his former election rival's help in overcoming Congressional opposition to US military intervention in Syria. McCain said afterwards he believed Congress should support the President's call for action but called for further steps to build the military capability of the rebels.
"If Congress were to reject a resolution like this, after the President of the United States has already committed to action, the consequences would be catastrophic, in that credibility of this country with friends and adversaries alike would be shredded," McCain said. Desperate to avoid a humiliating defeat like the one suffered by David Cameron in Parliament, the White House has promised to "flood the zone" in an all-out lobbying effort.
On Tuesday, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defence, will both appear before Congress to make the administration's case for airstrikes. Part of their drive includes winning over McCain, who has called for the US to intervene forcefully to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and said he would oppose "isolated military strikes that are not part of an overall strategy" to defeat the regime.
Obama has promised a war-weary American public that the strikes would be "limited" and aimed at punishing the regime for using chemical weapons rather than toppling Assad. Even if the White House is able to win over McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican foreign policy hawk, the proposal faces headwinds on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats have complained that Obama's resolution is vague, giving the White House "a blank cheque" for military action.