WASHINGTON (AFP) – Presidents Barack Obama and Bashar Al-Assad will go head-to-head in dueling U.S. television interviews Monday, as a crucial week dawns for the U.S. leader’s push for air attacks on Syria.
Assad will reportedly deny that he used chemical weapons on civilians, as Obama makes a long-odds push to reverse his nation’s mood and win support for punishing the Damascus regime for flouting taboos on the use of such arms.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toiled abroad to build diplomatic support, which appears solid in condemning Assad but is falling short of the kind of broad coalition for military action that Washington had hoped to build.
Assad, fighting a propaganda war as Washington agonizes over whether to attack, gave an interview to veteran CBS and PBS newsman Charlie Rose, which will begin airing at 6pm EST.
He will insist he was not behind the August 21 gas attack on a Damascus suburb and say he does not know if a U.S. attack would come.
Rose told CBS that Assad would say “there’s no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.”
And he threatened “some kind of retaliation” if Washington strikes, Rose said.
Obama, credibility on the line as signs point to an uphill battle to win support for strikes in Congress, will give interviews to six U.S. television broadcasters Monday.
He is waging a political offensive of uncharacteristic intensity, after shocking the world by putting air strikes on hold a week ago and seeking support from skeptical lawmakers.
But his chief of staff Denis McDonough acknowledged that the evidence linking Assad to last month’s attack that allegedly killed 1,429 people is not “irrefutable.”
“Do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable, beyond a reasonable doubt evidence? This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way,” McDonough told CNN.
Obama, criticized in the past for being too slow to strong arm Congress, dropped into a dinner hosted by Vice President Joe Biden for wavering Republican senators at his official residence in Washington late Sunday.
Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham — who back a U.S. military strike — along with Susan Collins, Saxby Chambliss, Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer were among those present for the dinner, where Italian food was served family-style.
On Tuesday, the president will address Americans from the White House, ahead of a possible Senate vote on authorizing force in Syria later this week.
While the White House believes an endorsement from the Senate could be within reach, Obama faces a wall of opposition from both Republicans and from many of his Democratic allies in the House of Representatives.
The divisions played out in televised political talkshows Sunday.
McDonough implored lawmakers to view harrowing videos of apparently gassed women and children foaming at the mouth as they decide how to cast their fateful votes.
“The question for Congress this week is what are the consequences” for Assad, McDonough told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But many lawmakers, while horrified by the attack and ready to blame the Assad regime, question the rationale for U.S. action, and after more than a decade of war, fear another morass in the Middle East.
One solid Obama supporter, Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, summed up the task before the president.