Obama launches push for support on Syria, calls for quick action in Congress

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON | Tue Sep 3, 2013.

(Reuters) – President Barack Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to act quickly on a resolution authorizing use of military force against Syria, as he ramped up a lobbying effort to win support for limited strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

During a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, Obama said he was confident Congress would vote in favor of military action and said the United States had a broad plan to help the rebels defeat Syrian government forces.

“What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad’s capabilities,” Obama told reporters. “At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will present the administration’s case for U.S. military action at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, which is set to begin at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Obama said on Saturday he would seek lawmakers’ approval for a possible strike in response to what Washington says was a sarin gas attack by the Syrian government that killed more than 1,400 people, hundreds of them children, near Damascus on August 21.

However, he has faced stiff resistance from some lawmakers and polls show strong public opposition to U.S. action.

Some U.S. lawmakers, including Obama’s fellow Democrats, have said they are concerned that the president’s draft resolution could be too open-ended and allow possible use of ground troops or eventual attacks on other countries.

The resolution authorizes Obama to use military force as necessary to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” to or from Syria of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons.

Obama told congressional leaders he was willing to address their concerns about the authorization.

“I look forward to listening to the various concerns of the members who are here today. I am confident that those concerns can be addressed,” he said.

“I would not be going to Congress if I wasn’t serious about consultations and believing that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission, we will be more effective.”

Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell were present at the White House meeting along with the chairs of congressional committees that deal with national security and the armed services.

Asked whether he was confident Congress would vote in favor of a strike, Obama said: “I am.”

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said he was confident the resolution would pass Congress, but in amended form.

“I believe that we will get there,” he said, although he added: “I think our resolution that we will ultimately see will be far more tailored than what the administration sent us.”


“At the end of the day, (it) will strike the balance between the need to act and act in a way that meets our goals and not create an open-ended, boots-on-the-ground long-term proposition,” Menendez told CNBC in an interview.

Menendez, speaking on CBS News, said he wanted Kerry and Hagel to offer “the full case for the use of force” and detail “what that campaign will look like in broad terms, especially as it relates to the end result.”

The committee will also hold a closed hearing on Wednesday to discuss the intelligence related to Syria, Menendez told CBS.

It could then begin debate on a Senate version of the bill on Wednesday afternoon, with the aim of sending it to the full Senate for debate next week.

The House and the Senate return from their summer recess on September 9. Both chambers would have to approve the authorization, and it remains unclear whether the Obama administration has the votes.

While he is seeking congressional approval, Obama has said he does not actually require authorization for a strike on Syria, which has blamed the chemical attack on rebel forces.

Republican Senator John McCain, who attended a White House meeting on Syria on Monday, said Obama “would seriously consider” providing weapons to opponents fighting Assad.

“We discussed … increasing the capabilities and that means providing not only weapons, but the kind of weapons they need, which are anti-armor and anti-air. AK-47s don’t do very well against tanks,” McCain, a member of the committee, told CNN’s “New Day.”

Both McCain and Menendez said that although any action would be aimed at degrading Assad’s capabilities to deliver chemical weapons, it could also undermine the Syrian government itself and shift momentum in favor of the rebels.

But Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican member of the committee, said he was concerned that Obama might take action that was ineffective and which ultimately made matters worse.

“We’ve got to see the entire strategy. I’ve got to see that there’s a long-term commitment to follow through on whatever the blowback might be of his actions,” he told MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Vicki Allen; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall and David Brunnstrom)

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