September 4, 2013

Syria strike backed by key Senate panel

The committee provides Congressional support sought by President Obama, but Russia – Syria's close ally – continues to fight against an international coalition.

The Associated Press

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Secretary of State John Kerry confers with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sits at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, during the committee's hearing to consider the authorization for use of military force in Syria. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. is at right. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Yet he also said that if the United States and its allies could provide sufficient evidence that Assad's forces carried out the Aug. 21 attack, Russia would consider allowing U.N. action against Syria. He said Russia has frozen the shipment of certain parts for S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that it had agreed to sell to Assad's regime.

In his visit to Stockholm -- a trip that the White House hastily arranged after Obama called off a Moscow meeting with Putin planned for this week -- Obama addressed the strained U.S.-Russia relations, admitting that he and Putin have "hit a wall." He said Russia has failed to acknowledge "some of the terrible behavior of the Assad regime" and is preventing the kind of political transition in Syria that could stabilize the war-torn Middle East country.

Obama made an indirect reference to Russia's controversial new law criminalizing "homosexual propaganda," which has drawn attention ahead of the G-20 summit. "Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must be treated equally under the law," he said, adding, "Our societies are strengthened and not weakened by diversity."

At the G-20 summit, Obama has no meeting planned with Putin, but he has scheduled bilateral meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. U.S. officials said he plans to press his case on Syria in those sessions.

The resolution approved by the Senate committee Wednesday also requires the White House to plan for a way to end the civil war in Syria through diplomatic means, but suggests the administration's goal of a negotiated settlement for Syria is untenable now. Military action should focus on "decisive changes to the present military balance of power" in Syria's civil war, the Senate panel said.

The committee voted 10 to 7, with seven Democrats joining three Republicans in favor, and two Democrats joining five Republicans in voting no. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the Senate's newest member, voted "present."

Three Republicans, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, voted with the Democratic majority.

But the vote exposed deep divisions in both parties and demonstrated how the possibility of military engagement in Syria has scrambled political allegiances unlike other issues in recent years. Two of the committee's most liberal members -- Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Christopher Murphy, D-Conn. -- joined five conservatives in opposition, including Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

During a separate hearing in the House, Kerry said some Arab states are among more than 30 nations supporting U.S. military strikes, even though the Arab League declined to back that option last month. A few Arab states even offered to pay for the military operation, Kerry said.

Offers have been "quite significant, very significant," Kerry said, but he did not name the would-be donors.

Anti-war demonstrators sitting behind Kerry held their red-painted palms aloft for the television cameras. As he did when addressing senators Tuesday, Kerry acknowledged demonstrators and said their views are welcome. He promised that the administration is not rushing to war.

Testifying alongside Kerry, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Assad might respond to a missile strike with a retaliatory cyberattack. The Pentagon has planned for that and other possible after-effects, Dempsey said.

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