September 18, 2013

Obama seeks Congress' support for Syria plan

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British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power confer in the United Nations Security Council, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Moscow insisted on Tuesday that a new Security Council resolution on Syria not allow the use of force, while the Arab country's main opposition group demanded a swift international response following the U.N. report that confirmed chemical weapons were used outside Damascus last month. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were discussing a resolution. The U.S. and France want the enforcement mechanisms to include a military option.

"The U.S. reserves the right to take military action," she said.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell questioned whether it was possible to remove chemical weapons during a civil war.

"I'm skeptical that this is a game plan that will lead to an outcome, and it looks more like, frankly, an effort to guarantee that Assad stays in power. And as I recall, two years ago, the policy of this administration was regime change," McConnell told reporters.

Despite toning down the rhetoric in recent days, Obama and his national security team have stressed the importance of maintaining a credible military threat. But Congress' tepid support for any action, which is likely to grow only weaker as lawmakers focus now on the economy and averting a government shutdown, risks undermining the effort.

In the Telemundo interview, Obama called Assad a "murderous dictator" and reiterated that Assad can't remain in power. But he said the first step to address is Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. "We're going to take this a step at a time," he said.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a leading supporter of tough action against Assad's government, said the U.S. must show the resolve to act if either Syria or Russia backs out of the deal. "It is a continued credible threat of military force that will keep them on track to uphold the provisions of that agreement," he said Tuesday.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke with the State Department's Sherman on Tuesday and said she expressed confidence in the administration's ability to track Assad's chemical weapons.

No Syrian caches were hidden recently or transferred to militant groups such as Hezbollah, Engel said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, relaying the information he received.

Democrats and Republicans are split internally over Syria. Even on Russia's new role, lawmakers offered conflicting signs of support for Moscow's effort.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaking at a Senate forum, accused Russian banks of financing Assad's government through 2½ years of civil war that has now killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. He said the administration should freeze Russian bank assets in the U.S. and put travel bans on employees.

"That is a pressure point that we ought to be exerting," Blumenthal said.

Last week, he and three other senators sent a bipartisan letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew demanding action against Russian financial institutions that allow Assad to "continue military purchases and pay the soldiers that sustain the war in Syria."


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