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Monday, December 5, 2016

DAMASCUS (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged world support for punitive strikes against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, while Damascus vowed retaliation and resistance even if a third world war erupts.

Obama, fresh from efforts in Washington to secure bipartisan support for military intervention, said in Stockholm that the world had set “a red line” for Syria and it could not now remain silent in the face of the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said, referring to international rules banning the use of chemical weapons, even in case of war.

“My credibility is not on the line,” Obama said in remarks after arriving in Sweden for a two-day visit.

“The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important,” he said.

Obama’s trip will also take him to the G20 summit in Russia’s Saint Petersburg, where he is expected to rally support for, or at least acceptance of, moves to punish Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged deadly gas attack in Damascus suburbs last month.

White House officials have said Obama will hold meetings on the sidelines of G20 with the president of France, the main foreign backer of a strike on Syria, as well as the leaders of China and Japan.

While no formal bilateral meeting is planned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strong supporter of Assad, a White House official suggested there likely would be some kind of dialogue.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad, in an exclusive interview with AFP, said his government was ready to retaliate in the event of a military strike.

“The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War III. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,” Muqdad said.

“Syria has taken every measure to retaliate against… an aggression,” he added, refusing to elaborate.

He also stressed that Syria’s important ally Russia had not wavered in its support, despite comments by Putin suggesting a more conciliatory tone towards the West.

Both Iran and Russia have warned that any military intervention would have devastating regional consequences.

But in an interview broadcast earlier Wednesday, Putin appeared to strike a more conciliatory note by saying he did not exclude agreeing to strikes if it were proven the regime had carried out the alleged gas attack.

Muqdad stressed that Moscow had not wavered in its support of Damascus.

“The Russian position is unchanged; it’s a responsible position of a friend that is in favor of peace,” he said.

In later comments at a Kremlin meeting, Putin appeared to corroborate this, warning the U.S. Congress that it would be legitimizing an “aggression” if it gave its blessing to military action in a vote expected next week.

Obama said in Stockholm that he hoped Putin would change direction on a military intervention in Syria.

“I’m always hopeful… Ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems,” he said.

Since British lawmakers voted down a bid to take any military action against Assad’s regime, Washington has found a strong partner in France but is seeking other allies.

France has vowed to “punish” Assad and this week released an intelligence report pinning the blame for the chemical attack on the regime.

The issue was being debated Wednesday by the French parliament in what is expected to be a fiery session, as pressure mounts on President Francois Hollande to follow Washington’s lead and put the matter to a vote.

Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action but, with public opinion deeply skeptical of military strikes, many lawmakers are clamoring for a vote.

Ahead of the debate, Syria’s parliament speaker urged France “not to hasten” to act against his war-torn country.

“Syrian lawmakers are determined to get to the truth… and we ask you not to hasten to commit a heinous, senseless crime, as you must steer the French republic away from the war path and towards diplomacy,” Jihad Lahham said in a statement.

In Washington, top administration leaders were to keep up an offensive to win congressional support for military strikes against Syria.

On Tuesday, after a passionate plea by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry not to succumb to “armchair isolationism,” lawmakers in Washington drafted a bipartisan measure imposing a 90-day deadline for any U.S. military intervention.

It would also ban the deployment of any U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, where fighting, now in its third year, has claimed more than 110,000 lives.

Obama has deferred any military action in Syria, seeking Congressional approval at a vote scheduled for September 9.

The Senate committee, after a nearly four-hour hearing, re-worded the resolution put forward by the White House to restrict it to “limited and tailored” use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria, according to a copy of the draft obtained by AFP.

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