September 3, 2013

Obama looks for support on Syria

The president wins backing from John McCain for an attack, but much skepticism persists.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Obama worked Monday to persuade skeptical lawmakers to endorse a U.S. military intervention in civil war-wracked Syria, winning conditional support from two leading Senate foreign policy hawks even as he encountered resistance from members of his own party after two days of a determined push to sell the plan.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama still needs to make a strong case for attacking the regime of President Bashar Assad, but they toned down past criticism that the president's plan was too weak to change the course of the fighting in Syria in favor of the opposition.

"We have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences," now and in future international crises, McCain told reporters outside the White House after an hour-long private meeting that he and Graham had with Obama and White House national security adviser Susan Rice.

But the outcome of any vote remained in doubt amid continued skepticism in a war-weary Congress. In a conference call with administration officials, several Democrats pushed back against military action, questioning both the intelligence about a chemical attack last month outside Damascus and the value of an intervention to U.S. interests, according to aides on the call. Others demanded narrower authorization than that requested by the administration.

"The White House has put forward a proposed bill authorizing the use of force that, as drafted, is far too broad and open-ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence committee.

Obama has insisted that he will not send troops into Syria and that he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes to the language of the resolution.

A French intelligence report on Monday alleged that the Syrian regime launched an attack on Aug. 21 that involved a "massive use of chemical agents," and said it could carry out similar strikes in the future.

The government, on its website, published a nine-page intelligence synopsis about Syria's chemical weapons program that found that at least 281 deaths could be attributed to the attack in rebel-held areas outside Damascus. The analysis based that count in part on dozens of videos culled by French intelligence services.

The extract said "the analysis of intelligence that we possess today leads us to estimate that on Aug. 21, 2013, the Syrian regime launched an attack on some areas of the Damascus suburbs held by opposition units, bringing together conventional means and the massive use of chemical agents."

In a post on his website, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota reflected a view shared by others: "I want you to know that I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."

After changing course and deciding to seek congressional approval for military action, Obama is confronted with one of his most difficult foreign policy tests, facing a Congress divided over an unavoidably tough vote-of-conscience on overseas conflict rather than the more customary partisan fights over domestic policy.

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