Report claims chemical weapons used in Syria without Assad's approval

As Obama argues for military intervention in Syria, President Assad says he wasn't involved in the use of chemical weapons there and the US could see consequences if they act.

Khaled al-Hariri/REUTERS
A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds pictures of him (l.) and his father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, during a protest against possible U.S. strikes, at Youssef al-Azma square in Damascus September 9, 2013.

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President Barack Obama and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will vie for the limelight on American airwaves today as CBS and PBS air a pre-recorded interview with Mr. Assad, and Mr. Obama makes a case for military action against his country on six American networks.

Hours after interviewing the Syrian leader about international accusations that the regime was behind a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians last month, television interviewer Charlie Rose said that Assad "denied that he had anything to do with the attack… . He denied that he knew, in fact, that there was a chemical attack, notwithstanding what has been said and notwithstanding the videotape. He said there’s not evidence yet to make a conclusive judgment," The New York Times reports.

Assad's denials will be aired as Obama argues in interviews that the US has evidence that regime forces carried out the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than a thousand civilians and that a limited air strike is the correct international response.

Obama is scrambling to make his case as Congress reconvenes today after summer recess. Last week he said he would seek authorization for a military strike from lawmakers, but opposition appears to be building, not waning, as he makes appeal after appeal. Obama will also give a televised speech to the US public on Tuesday night.

The Globe and Mail reports that the first crucial vote will likely be Wednesday in the Senate, on a resolution authorizing "limited and specific use" of the US military against the Syrian regime. A final vote in the Senate will come at the end of the week, and a House vote is expected next week.

The Obama administration "believes the evidence is already clear," CBS News reports. The US allegedly has intelligence that shows regime forces preparing for and executing the attack and intercepted communications about the attack that day, but that evidence has been kept secret. The public argument is "based largely on circumstantial evidence," says CBS.

Highlights of the interview with Assad will be aired on CBS this morning, and the interview will be shown in full on PBS this evening. CBS published snippets this morning from Mr. Rose's interview with Assad. The Syrian leader warned that if the US strikes, it should "expect every action" in response.

"You should expect everything. Not necessarily from the government," Assad told "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose in his first television interview since Mr. Obama sought congressional approval for military action.

In a clear reference to his allies in Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, Assad warned that his government is "not the only player in this region." 

"You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology. You have everything in this region now," said Assad, who has been accused by the White House of killing 1,400 of his own people in an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs.

CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes producer Jeffrey Fager, who traveled to Damascus with Mr. Rose, said Assad seemed "surprisingly relaxed and confident," according to The New York Times. "He knows an attack could be coming and it seemed like he was trying hard in the interview to prevent it from happening.”

German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported yesterday that intercepted Syrian regime communications indicate that a chemical weapons attack did occur – but without Assad's approval.

The Guardian reports that a German surveillance ship operated by Berlin's intelligence service heard regime forces repeatedly request permission to use chemical weapons but that Assad "blocked numerous requests."

But the intercepts tended to add weight to the claims of the Obama administration and Britain and France that elements of the Assad regime, and not renegade rebel groups, were responsible for the attack in the suburb of Ghouta, Bild said.

The German intelligence findings concerning Assad's personal role may complicate US-led efforts to persuade the international community that punitive military action is justified. They could also strengthen suspicions that Assad no longer fully controls the country's security apparatus.

Addressing a closed meeting of the German parliamentary committee last week, the BND chief Gerhard Schindler said his agency shared the US view that the attack had been launched by the regime and not the rebels. But he said the spy agency had not [had] conclusive evidence either way, German media reported.

Schindler said that BND had intercepted a telephone call in which a high-ranking member of Hezbollah in Lebanon told the Iranian embassy in Damascus that Assad had made a big mistake when he gave the order to use the chemicals, the magazine Der Spiegel said.

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