September 2, 2013

Leaders skeptical of strike on Syria

By PAUL KANE and ED O'KEEFE The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Leading lawmakers dealt bipartisan rejection Sunday to President Obama's request to strike Syrian military targets, saying the best hope for congressional approval would be to narrow the scope of the resolution.

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John Kerry
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During appearances on five Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State John Kerry predicted Congress will approve military strikes in Syria.

The Associated Press

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A look at Syria developments around the world 

The United States is considering launching a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, blamed by the U.S. and the Syrian opposition for an Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The U.S. said the attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by the aid group Doctors Without Borders.

President Barack Obama said he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria but is seeking congressional authorization for the use of force in a vote expected after Congress returns to work Sept. 9.

Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Monday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:


Obama will host Sen. John McCain at the White House, hoping his opponent in the 2008 presidential election will help sell the idea of a U.S. military intervention in Syria to a nation scarred by more than a decade of war. The Obama administration is trying to rally support for the strike among Americans and their congressman and senators.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the information the U.S. showed Moscow to prove that Syrian regime was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack was "absolutely unconvincing." He said Monday "there was nothing specific" in the evidence: "no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals." He did not say what tests he was referring to.


The head of the U.N. refugee agency in Syria said 7 million Syrians, or almost one-third of the population, have been displaced by the country's civil war. Tarik Kurdi told The Associated Press on Monday that 5 million of the displaced are still in Syria while about 2 million have fled to neighboring countries. More Syrian refugees crossed the border at Cilvegozu in southern Turkey. Before the outbreak of the conflict, Syria had a population of about 23 million people.


French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is scheduled to meet with the leaders of Parliament's defense and foreign affairs committees. The prime minister's office said Ayrault will give the lawmakers an update on Syria and show them a declassified report on Syria's chemical weapons to back up France's claim that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack.


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said his country urged the U.S. not to take unilateral action against Syria in response to last month's chemical weapons attack against civilians. He said Washington briefed Beijing about the matter and that China is concerned about chemical weapons use but that the country opposes the U.S. acting alone. Hong didn't address the possibility of the U.S. acting together with France's government, which supports a strike, although Beijing would almost certainly be opposed to any action.


Australia offered moral support for a military strike in Syria. Patrick Low, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr's spokesman, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called last week and that Australia supports the U.S. taking action. He said Kerry didn't ask for military assistance and Australia didn't offer it. Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott defended his controversial weekend comments on the Syrian civil war. He had described both sides in the conflict as "baddies versus baddies."


New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said his country needs more information after Kerry reached out for support in a call to New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully over the weekend. Key said New Zealand wants to assess all steps taken ahead of a strike before stating its position.


Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger in Germany's upcoming election said late Sunday they wouldn't participate in military action against Syria. Merkel said there needs to be "a collective answer by the U.N." to the use of chemical weapons in Syria as she faced center-left rival Peer Steinbrueck in a televised debate. Steinbrueck said he wouldn't participate in military action as chancellor and would "greatly regret it" if the U.S. strikes alone without an international mandate.

From the Democratic dean of the Senate to tea party Republicans in their second terms, lawmakers said the White House's initial request to use force against Syria will be rewritten in the coming days to try to shore up support in a skeptical Congress.

But some veteran lawmakers expressed doubt that even the new use-of-force resolution would win approval, particularly in the House.

"I think it's going to be a very tough sell," said Rep. Tom Cole, Okla., who is often a key crossover Republican in compromises with the White House. For now, Cole said he is "leaning no" on approving any use of force against Syria.

His remarks came after a more than 2 1/2-hour classified briefing that drew nearly 100 lawmakers to the Capitol, flying in from across the country on 24 hours' notice for a rare Labor Day weekend meeting.

The closed-door briefing, run by five senior national security officials, began the administration's all-out effort to win support for what Obama has said would be a limited strike against military targets to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime for carrying out a chemical attack.

White House officials have less than two weeks to secure backing in the House and the Senate, which will not formally return from their regular end-of-summer break until Sept. 9. They are expected to then immediately begin debate on military authorization, with votes by mid-September.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been talking to his former colleagues in the Senate, predicted victory during appearances on five Sunday talk shows.

Lawmakers from both parties said Sunday that the administration has presented convincing evidence that Assad's government carried out the attack, citing Sunday's briefing and other classified presentations that they received in the past week. The key stumbling block, they said, was the concern that a limited strike would not be an effective deterrent and would only draw the U.S. military deeper into Syria's civil war.

"I don't think there's a lot of doubt that the regime undertook this attack. There's a great deal of skepticism that a limited strike is likely to be effective," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

The uncertain outcome is rooted in a Congress that has proved deeply factionalized and dysfunctional. With Democrats running the Senate and Republicans the House, the two sides have fought to a near legislative standstill on almost every major issue. A proposal to stiffen background checks for gun buyers died in the Senate this spring, despite having the support of 90 percent of the public. A comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, also backed by a majority of voters, has stalled.

Add to that mix a heated debate on something as consequential as war and its constitutional underpinnings, and the atmosphere on Capitol Hill could grow even more toxic.

The most difficult hurdle comes in the House, which has been incapable this year of approving what in the past were considered perfunctory measures. The farm bill, usually a bipartisan celebration of agriculture policy, failed in late June.

Aware of the growing bloc of Republican isolationists, senior Republican aides warned Sunday that a large number of Democrats will have to support the use-of-force resolution for it to have any chance.

Obama's allies said the first order of business will be to work with the administration to redraft the resolution, which was sent to Capitol Hill on Saturday night and barely filled one page. It had no prescriptions for what type of military action could be carried out or its duration.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the dean of the Senate and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters that the resolution is "too open-ended" as written. "I know it will be amended in the Senate," he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a former Senate staffer who inspected chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein's government against its own citizens in Iraq in the 1980s, said he will push to add language that would limit the length of the mission and prohibit putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

Such provisions could gain support from lawmakers who want to rein in the Obama administration, without hampering the goals of the mission -- which the president has said should be limited to missile strikes against military targets.


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Today's poll: Syria military strike

Should Congress authorize a military attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad?



View Results