LONDON – The Obama administration picked up new international endorsements Sunday for a military strike against Syria as Syrian President Bashar Assad denied his government had used chemical weapons and warned the American people not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war.
After a meeting in Paris with Arab foreign ministers, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saudi Arabia backed the strike that President Barack Obama is weighing to punish Syria for the August chemical attack he has said left more than 1,400 dead. Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, speaking at a news conference with Kerry, called for foreign intervention to protect the Syrian people.
Qatar also agreed to join a statement, signed by 11 U.S. allies who attended last week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons, holding Assad responsible for what they called a horrific chemical attack Aug. 21 and calling for a strong international response.
The statement has become the administration’s vehicle of choice to demonstrate shared international outrage as Obama fights an uphill battle for congressional authorization of the use of force against Assad.
Kerry said other Arab countries had also agreed to sign it and would make their own announcements in the next 24 hours.
On Saturday, the 28-member European Union unanimously agreed to a similar statement. But neither document mentioned support for a military strike, and the E.U. said there should be no action against Syria until U.N. investigators who visited the site of the chemical attack issue their report later this month. The administration has said the U.N. report is irrelevant because U.S. intelligence has confirmed the attack and much of the world agrees.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been among the leading arms suppliers to the Syrian rebels and have long backed unspecified direct foreign intervention in Syria. Although neither has said whether it would participate in a U.S.-led military strike, Attiyah said Sunday that his government was considering how it could be of assistance. Qatar sent bombers and other resources to aid the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.
Speaking through an interpreter, Attiyah said that the Syrian people over more than three years has been demanding or asking the international community to intervene.
Several parties who support the Syrian regime, he said, had been intervening in that country since the war began with an uprising against the government in 2011. He was apparently referring to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
The Paris meeting was originally scheduled as an opportunity for Kerry to brief the Arab League on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Along with the Qatar and Saudi Arabia representatives, also attending were the foreign ministers of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby.
Kerry, who flew to London Sunday for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, repeatedly emphasized the need and desire for a political solution in Syria. But he spent the weekend trying to rally foreign support for a military strike while the administration continued making its case to Congress and the American people.
Assad sent his own message to those audiences, telling Charlie Rose of CBS News in a Damascus interview that it had not been a good experience for the American people to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts. He added that they should communicate to their Congress and to their leadership in Washington not to authorize a strike.