Politics

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

STOCKHOLM – President Obama took his campaign for a punitive military strike against Syria overseas Wednesday, declaring that "the international community cannot be silent" and that its credibility is on the line, as his request for congressional approval of such action moved ahead in the Senate.

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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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But Obama faced fresh resistance from Russia, Syria's stalwart patron. President Vladimir Putin asserted that the West's case against Syrian President Bashar Assad over his regime's alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians is "absurd" and does not stand up to scrutiny.

In Washington, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed military action after two days of hearings Wednesday, but not before changing the text to stress the goal of strengthening Syrian rebels and weakening Assad.

The full Senate could vote as soon as next week on an authorization that now expressly prohibits putting any U.S. troops in Syria and gives the president a 90-day window to complete military action. The House is separately considering a similar resolution.

Obama will make a major push to marshal global support for a U.S.-led retaliatory strike against Syria once he arrives in St. Petersburg on Thursday for the Group of 20 economic summit hosted by Putin. The challenge he faces came into stark relief here Wednesday, however, when Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said after meeting with Obama that his small nation could not support a unilateral response.

"At what point do we say we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity?" Obama said at a news conference in Stockholm. "I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly . . . the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing."

Obama said responsibility fell upon Congress and the world to retaliate against the Syrian regime for its "horrific" use of chemical weapons.

"I didn't set a red line," Obama told reporters. "The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty."

Obama and his administration have said Assad is directly responsible for the alleged sarin gas attack on hundreds of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. But Putin said Syria poses no threat to the United States. He also said he is skeptical of U.S. intelligence, going so far as to accuse Secretary of State John Kerry of lying in his testimony this week to Congress.

"It ought to be convincing," the Russian leader told The Associated Press in an interview published Wednesday. "It shouldn't be based on some rumors and information obtained by the special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that."

Putin also said he finds it unlikely that Assad would risk international repercussions by using long-banned chemical weapons to kill men, women and children.

At a meeting of the presidential human rights council Wednesday in Moscow, he accused the U.S. Senate of "legitimizing aggression" and added: "We have all glued ourselves to TV screens and are waiting to see whether there will be a sanction or not. What we should be talking about is that this is absurd in principle."

Russia has so far blocked proposals for U.N. Security Council action against Syria. In the AP interview, Putin warned the United States against launching a unilateral strike against Syria and said Russia is developing a plan of action in case it does so without U.N. approval, although he declined to go into specifics.

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