Syria's president Assad defiant in face of US strikes threat

DAMASCUS (AFP) - President Bashar al-Assad insisted Sunday that Syria will face down any military action, as Damascus residents mocked his US counterpart Barack Obama whose administration stepped up charges the regime used sarin gas.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, the lead advocate for a military strike, upped the ante, claiming Washington has proof that sarin gas was used by Assad's regime in a Damascus attack on Aug 21.

In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers urged the United Nations and international community to take "deterrent" action, while blaming the regime for the attack.

"The United Nations and the international community are called upon to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures," they said in a statement.

Syria's opposition National Coalition head earlier pleaded with the ministers to back a US-led strike, while Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said failure to do so would bolster Assad's forces to "pursue its crimes".

But Iran warned the US against attacking its ally Syria.

Mr Assad, whose regime has faced an uprising since March 2011 that a watchdog says has cost 110,000 lives, came out fighting.

"Syria... is capable of facing up to any external aggression just as it faces up to internal aggression every day, in the form of terrorist groups and those that support them," SANA news agency quoted him as saying.

Mr Assad's comments were his first since Mr Obama on Saturday committed the fate of US action to a vote in Congress.

This effectively pushed military action back until at least Sept 9, when US lawmakers return from their summer recess.

Mr Obama said he had decided that alleged chemical weapons attacks on Damascus suburbs last month that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people was so heinous that he would respond with a limited strike.

To press the case, Mr Kerry told US televisions that hair and blood samples given to the United States from emergency workers on the scene of the Aug 21 attacks showed signs of the powerful sarin nerve gas.

In Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad urged US lawmakers to show "wisdom" in their vote, while labelling Mr Obama "hesitant, disappointed and confused".

On the streets, residents of the Syrian capital were scornful of the president's decision to back down from immediate action.

"He who talks a lot doesn't act," said Mr Souad, mocking the US leader as a "coward" for delaying the decision.

"Obama is a coward. He didn't strike because he knows that our President Bashar (al-Assad) is all-powerful," said the employee of nationality electricity firm Ferdaws, in the northeast of the capital.

The National Coalition expressed disappointment and the group's leader Jarba urged Arab states to press the West to act.

"I am here before you today to appeal to your brotherly and humanitarian sentiments and ask you to back the international operation against the destructive war machine" of the Syrian regime, he said in Cairo.

The Saudi foreign minister, addressing the Cairo meeting of the pan-Arab organisation which is divided over the conflict in Syria, also called for action against the Assad regime.

"Opposition to international action only encourages the regime to pursue its crimes," Prince Saud al-Faisal said. "It is time to ask the international community to assume its responsibilities and to take deterrent measures." But Syria's ally Iran warned the United States against going ahead with a military strike.

"The Americans cannot threaten the countries of the region and expect that their own interests will not be threatened," Allaeddine Boroujerdi, the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee chief, told reporters in Damascus.

On Saturday, Mr Obama said the US military is poised to react at any time.

"The chairman of the joint chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose," he said. "Our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now."

The US Navy has deployed an amphibious transport ship to the Mediterranean, where five destroyers are already in place for possible missile strikes on Syria, a defence official said on Sunday.

A team of UN inspectors spent four days investigating last week's alleged chemical attacks on suburbs of Damascus.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that analysis of samples taken at the site would take up to three weeks.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis called for the world to unite in a day of fasting and prayer for Syria on Saturday and said "God and history" would judge anyone using chemical weapons.