Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday warned that Western military strikes risked igniting a “regional war” in the “powder keg” of the Middle East, in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro.
Assad’s warning came amid a French intelligence report that blamed forces loyal to him for the “massive” chemical attack last month.
Anxious to overcome widespread scepticism of military action in response to the alleged gas attack, France released a nine-page report outlining its case against the regime.
Based on military and foreign intelligence services, the report said the regime launched an attack “combining conventional means with the massive use of chemical agents” on rebel-held areas around the capital Damascus on August 21.
It said that based on videos, French intelligence had counted at least 281 dead but that reports of up to 1,500 killed were consistent with such heavy use of chemical weapons.
“The attack on August 21 could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime,” the report said. “We believe the Syrian opposition does not have the capacity to carry out an operation of such magnitude with chemical agents,” it said.
In his interview with Le Figaro, Assad also threatened France that it would face “repercussions” if it took part in US-led plans for military action in response to the chemical weapons attack.
“The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fuse is getting shorter,” Assad told the newspaper’s correspondent in Damascus.
“We cannot only talk about a Syrian response, but what could happen after the first strike. Nobody knows what will happen,” Assad said.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war.”
Assad also said France, which is prepared to back Washington in threatened military strikes in response to the alleged August 21 chemical attack, should consider the consequences of such action.
“Whoever works against the interests of Syria and its citizens is an enemy. The French people are not our enemy, but the policy of their state is hostile to the Syrian people,” he said.
“Insofar as the policy of the French state is hostile to the Syrian people, the state will be its enemy... There will be repercussions, negative ones of course, on the interests of France.”
He said French policy on Syria now “depends totally on Qatar and the United States” who have backed the opposition.
Assad said that at the start of the crisis, now into its third year, a solution could have been found through dialogue or political measures but the situation today was “different”.
The French parliament is due to hold an emergency session on Syria tomorrow but there will be no vote.
Meanwhile, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and four other ships in its strike group have moved into the Red Sea.
US defence officials described the move as “prudent planning” in case the ships are needed for military action against Syria.
The officials said the strike group had not received any orders to move into the Mediterranean, where five US destroyers and an amphibious ship, the USS San Antonio, remain poised for possible cruise missile strikes against Syria.
Moving the Nimitz into the Red Sea was aimed at putting more US assets in place if they are needed to support what US officials still describe as a limited attack against Syria after it used chemical weapons against civilians.
“It does place that strike group in a position to respond to a variety of contingencies,” said one official, who was not authorised to speak publicly.
The nuclear-powered Nimitz is accompanied by the Princeton, a cruiser, and three destroyers - the William P Lawrence, Stockdale and Shoup, according to the officials.
President Barack Obama on Saturday backed off imminent strikes by the destroyers off the coast of Syria until Congress had time to vote its approval. Defence officials said the delay gave them more time to reassess which ships and other weapons will be kept in the region - and whether some may be allowed to leave. Congress returns to Washington on September
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