Assad Talks Tough While McCain and Graham Meet with Obama

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned any military action against Syria would set off the "powder keg" that is the middle east, while Sen. John McCain and Lindsay Graham indicated the President is now considering more than just a "limited" strike. 

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned any military action against Syria would set off the "powder keg" that is the middle east, while Sen. John McCain and Lindsay Graham indicated the President is now considering more than just a "limited" strike.

On Monday, Assad gave his first interview since President Obama announced he will ask Congress to authorize a military strike against Syria as punishment for a chemical weapons attack that killed over 1,400 Syrian citizens to French newspaper Le Figaro. Assad rejected the notion that the U.S. or France, who released a detailed report outlining their case that Assad carried out a "massive" chemical attack on Monday, have proven his government was responsible.

Per a translation from Al Jazeera's Massoud Hayoun, Assad said that Obama and French President Francois Hollande "were incapable" of producing proof the regime carried out the attack. He also would not confirm or deny whether the Syrian army has chemical weapons. Assad argued that a chemical weapons attack on his citizens would be illogical because it would hurt his own soldiers:

Suppose that our army wished to use weapons of mass destruction, is it possible that they would do so in an area where they are themselves? And where soldiers were wounded by these arms, as was stated by the U.N. inspectors who visited them in the hospital where they were treated. Where is the logic?

Assad also cautioned that a military strike against Syria would have wide-ranging effects across the Middle East that could lead to responses from other countries. This is likely just a fear-mongering tactic from Assad, knowing that some U.S. lawmakers are uncertain about what the repercussions of an attack may be:

The Middle East is a powder keg and the fire is approaching today. You can’t only talk about what the Syrian response will be, but what could happen after a first strike. And no one knows what would happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will be widespread. The risk of a regional war exists.

Assad also offered this sort of confusing answer when asked if France is an enemy of Syria:

Anyone who contributes to the financial and military strengthening of terrorists is an enemy of the Syrian people. Anyone who is working against the interests of Syria and its citizens is an enemy. The people of France are not our enemies, but the politics of its state are hostile to the Syrian people. In so far as the politics of the French state are hostile to the Syrian people, this state is our enemy.This hostility will cease when there is a change in French policy. There will be repercussions, of course negative, on France’s interests.

We'll have to wait a while before we know what those negative repercussions against France's interests will be. The odds of France carrying out an attack alone seem slim even though Hollande's ruling party rejected a call from opposition lawmakers to hold a vote deciding whether or not to attack. The U.S. will at least have to pass motions through Congress and the Senate next week before a partnership will come to fruition.

On that front, Republican leaders met with President Obama on Monday as he continues his pressure campaign to convince both sides of the aisle an intervention is necessary in Syria. So far the reaction in Washington has been mixed, and today Sen. John McCain and Lindsay Graham were both still undecided, citing concerns about potential fallout after an attack. "A rejection of that, a vote against the resolution by Congress, I think would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the President of the United States," McCain told reporters after the meeting. "None of us want that." Graham indicated the attack must send a message to other potential enemies before he would put his full support behind an attack. "I can sell to the people of South Carolina that if we don’t get Syria right, Iran is surely going to take the signals that we don’t care about their nuclear program and it weighs on the president’s mind strongly about the signals we send," he said. But McCain's statements indicating the President is considering a larger response than he's conveyed in interviews so far was the day's biggest development:

McCain said he encouraged Obama to think beyond simply punitive strikes against Assad, saying, “a weak response is almost as bad as doing nothing.” After the meeting, he declined to discuss the options Obama laid out, but said a larger response is now under consideration. “I don’t think it’s an accident that the aircraft carrier is moving over in the region,” he said.

That doesn't mean the U.S. will necessarily put boots-on-the-ground or anything, but what would constitute something beyond a "limited" strike is an interesting thing to consider -- especially if that's what it takes to sell both Congress and the Senate on an operation.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.