President Barack Obama sought to galvanize support in Congress for what he calls a “limited” U.S. intervention in Syria, as an Israeli missile-defense test provoked war jitters in the Middle East.
Stock and oil markets were briefly rattled by what Israel described as a joint flight test with the U.S. of its Arrow missile-interception system over the Mediterranean Sea. An Israeli Defense Ministry statement called the exercise a success. Richard Lehner, spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said he is looking into the details.
The demonstration of Israeli preparedness was a possible signal to Iran, Syria’s main regional ally. It came as key pro- intervention senators urged Obama to work harder to make his case to a war-weary American public.
“Mr. President, clear the air,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said at the White House yesterday after meeting Obama. “Be decisive. Be firm about why it matters to us as a nation to get Syria right.”
Israel’s test dramatized the potential regional spillover of a U.S.-led assault on Syria’s chemical weapons capability. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has “the strength to defend ourselves, and to anyone who is thinking to attack us -- it’s not worthwhile,” according to a text message from his office.
“All elements of the system performed according to their operational configuration,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said.
Obama is stepping up the lobbying since his announcement on Aug. 31 that he would seek the authorization of Congress to strike Syria. Obama will later today meet with the leaders of both houses of Congress and the chairmen and ranking minority members of the armed services, foreign affairs and intelligence committees.
The president then leaves for Sweden and the Sept. 5-6 Group of 20 summit in Russia, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used his UN Security Council veto power to frustrate western efforts to intervene on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in the 2 1/2-year civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are scheduled to testify on Obama’s Syrian plan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 2:30 p.m. local time.
Oil futures jumped as much as 1.2 percent after RIA Novosti reported that Russia detected the firing of two missiles in the Mediterranean. The market settled down on confirmation that war hadn’t broken out. The price of crude traded at $115.04 per barrel at 1:10 p.m. in London today, 0.6 percent higher than yesterday’s close.
Earlier, Syria’s Assad sought to press French President Francois Hollande to avoid joining the U.S. in a military strike by warning of reprisals against France’s “interests.” French lawmakers will debate a possible role tomorrow.
Calling the Middle East a “powder keg” ready to explode, Assad told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview published late yesterday that a French intervention would lead to “repercussions, quite clearly negative ones, for the interests of France.”
France has close to 900 soldiers in a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, next door to Syria, according to the French Defense Ministry’s website.
France shaped up as the principal U.S. ally in an anti- Assad campaign after lawmakers in Britain, at the U.S.’s side in Middle Eastern conflicts since the 1990-91 Gulf War, voted against a military role in Syria.
Hollande, who has wide powers to commit French forces without a parliamentary go-ahead, is considering eventually asking for lawmakers’ approval, Le Monde reported, citing unnamed presidential advisers.
France added to the intelligence case yesterday, releasing a nine-page declassified assessment that identified the Syrian government as the only possible culprit behind an Aug. 21 poison gas attack east of Damascus.
Obama and Hollande cite that massacre, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people including more than 400 children, as the reason for a narrowly targeted, quickly executed strike to degrade Syria’s chemical warfare capability.
Damascus-based Al-Thawra, a state-run newspaper close to Assad, accused the U.S. of orchestrating a terrorist campaign against Syria. “America can’t live without resorting to terrorism, or without spurring on warmongers,” it editorialized today.
Separately, the United Nations said today the ranks of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries have swelled past the 2 million mark, half of them children. A further 4.25 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted inside the country.
Lebanon has borne the brunt, sheltering 716,000 fleeing Syrians, the UN said. Jordan has accommodated 515,000 with 460,000 going to Turkey, a NATO member that has called for the ouster of Assad.
Noting the “appalling” human costs, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s humanitarian aid commissioner, said in a statement that “the tide of refugees is bound to continue to rise.” Around 5,000 are fleeing daily, the UN said.
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