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Saudis back US as Assad gives warning

Kerry casts his net for allies before return to brief Congress

President Bashar Assad of Syria spoke to CBS television in an interview to be broadcast Monday.

CBS NEWS

President Bashar Assad of Syria spoke to CBS television in an interview to be broadcast Monday.

LONDON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry won key support from Saudi Arabia on Sunday for a strike on Syria, while Syrian President Bashar Assad denied using chemical weapons and warned of possible retaliation if the United States uses military force.

The developments took place as Kerry continued trying to build an international coalition — attempting to bring Arab nations on board with several European nations — that would punish Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons and killing more than 1,400 Syrians in Damascus suburbs last month.

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Saudi Arabia would join France in supporting a US-led strike, although it is unclear whether the Saudis would provide military assistance.

“They have supported the strike, and they support taking action — they believe that it’s very important to do that,” Kerry said about Saudi Arabia during a press conference following his meetings with nine Arab foreign ministers and Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby.

Word that Assad has hinted at retaliation came in a yet-to-be-broadcast interview with Charlie Rose of CBS News.

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Rose, previewing his interview with Assad for “Face the Nation” on Sunday, said that Assad “suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made.” The Assad regime’s allies include Iran and Hezbollah, the Islamist militant group in Lebanon.

Assad also repeated denials that he was responsible for the chemical weapon attack on his people, Rose said.

The interview will be broadcast Monday, the same day President Obama sits down for six television interviews in which he will continue making the case for a military strike.

Kerry, who has been trying to build an international coalition to back the US-led strikes, was asked on Sunday night about Assad’s comments.

“The evidence speaks for itself,” Kerry told reporters before a private dinner in London in the Queen Elizabeth Room of the Ritz-Carlton with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier in the day, before Assad’s interview was made public, Kerry was more direct.

“This is not fantasyland, this is not conjecture,” he said during a press conference in Paris. “Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons at least 11 times or so, according to our best judgments, with clarity now in this evidence we have presented to the world.”

Earlier on Sunday, Kerry emerged from a three-hour meeting with Arab foreign ministers and said that Saudi Arabia would support a US military strike as a way to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.

Kerry also had a one-on-one meeting on Sunday morning with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

But even while there appears to be a sense of growing international support for punishing Syria, the outlook for authorization by Congress is uncertain. Congressional votes on the proposal to launch strikes against Syria are slated to begin Wednesday.

After a meeting on Monday morning with the British foreign secretary, William Hague, Kerry is planning to fly back to Washington and provide a closed-door briefing for the entire US House. He will brief the Senate later in the week.

“As a veteran of the congressional process, I’d just say to you that all of these early prognostications about how tough it is, or defeat here or whatever — I think are just that,” Kerry said on Sunday in Paris. “They’re early, and they’re not completely accurate.”

“The vast majority of members of Congress, House and Senate, are undecided,” he added. “And that’s why . . . the briefings are taking place.”

As Assad denied using the chemical weapons, Kerry and others tried to make a stronger case that can convince both international allies and skeptical members of Congress. On Sunday, new videos were released showing the suffering that Syrians faced from the alleged use of chemical weapons.

The compilation of videos, posted on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence website, shows rooms full of lifeless people, including children, on the floor. Some lay with their mouths agape and their eyes glazed, others are convulsing and foaming at the mouth.

“Those videos make it clear to people that these are real human beings, real children, parents being affected in ways that are unacceptable to anybody anywhere by any standards,” Kerry said. “And it is the United States of America that has always stood with others to say, ‘We will not allow this. This is not our values. This is not who we are.’ ”

“I don’t think this case has been made enough — to enough people,” he added.

After the meeting with 10 Arab leaders, Kerry also said that “a number of countries” within the next 24 hours would sign onto a strongly worded statement that condemns the Syrian regime and calls for “a strong international response.”

The statement, drafted by the United States and signed by 10 other countries at the Group of 20 summit, does not explicitly endorse military strikes. On Saturday, Germany said it would sign on, and Qatar announced Sunday it would, too.

“I don’t believe the international community, if it really wanted to protect peace and security, can afford to stand still while an unarmed people is being attacked with these weapons,” Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiya of Qatar said in a press conference. He added, “We call on all other countries to intervene to protect the Syrian people from what [they are] being subjected to.”

Attiya would not say whether Qatar would provide military assets for a strike, saying only that his government “is currently studying with its friends and the United Nations what it could provide in order to protect the Syrian people.”

Qatar was involved in the NATO-led strikes in Libya in 2011. It is still unclear whether the United Nations will play a greater role.

President François Hollande of France said on Friday that he wanted to wait for a preliminary report from UN inspectors. On Saturday, he said that he could seek a vote by the UN Security Council.

On Sunday, Kerry did not rule out going to the UN, even though on Saturday he said that the body “has become a tool of ideology or individual nations.”

The United States has said the UN would be hamstrung from acting because Russia, one of Syria’s strongest allies, would use its veto power to block any effort. But the United States also needs to appease France if it is to mount strikes with other countries.

Kerry continued to make clear that any strikes would be aimed at punishing Assad for using chemical weapons — and not at ousting him from office.

“The end of this civil war is going to require a political solution . . . there is no military solution,” Kerry said. “We are not seeking to become engaged in or party to, or take over, Syria’s civil war.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com
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