WASHINGTON — At home and abroad, the Obama administration redoubled its campaign Sunday to build support for military action against Syria, saying it had won the backing of Saudi Arabia for a strike while still laboring to persuade a deeply reluctant Congress.
But Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, thrust himself into the debate as well, rejecting President Barack Obama’s claim that his forces used chemical weapons on civilians outside Damascus last month. In an interview with Charlie Rose, scheduled to be broadcast today, Assad warned that if Syria was attacked, it would retaliate.
With Obama scheduled to press his case today in interviews with six major television networks, the prospect of a split-screen moment loomed, featuring the two main antagonists in the international debate over how to deal with Syria.
In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told him that Saudi Arabia would support an American-led strike. Qatar also said it would back foreign intervention, though it did not explicitly endorse airstrikes. Kerry said he was hopeful that additional countries would indicate support for a strong response in coming days.
In Washington, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said the vote in Congress over whether to authorize military force would be closely watched by Iran and Hezbollah as a test of American resolve to respond to a chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces.
The question now for Congress is, “Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children?” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
But the depth of resistance in Congress was again on display Sunday, with lawmakers from both parties appearing on television news programs to voice opposition to a strike, either because they viewed it as a slippery slope toward another Middle East war or because they worried it might strengthen Syrian rebels with ties to al-Qaida.
“We’re being told that there are two choices: do nothing or bomb Syria,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “Clearly there have to be some other choices in between.”