WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s efforts to persuade the US Congress to back his plan to attack Syria met with skepticism yesterday from lawmakers in his own Democratic Party who expressed concern the United States would be dragged into a new Middle East conflict.
“There is a lot of skepticism,” said Representative Jim Moran after taking part in a 70-minute phone briefing for Democratic lawmakers by Obama’s top national security aides about the response to a chemical weapons attack that US officials say killed 1,429 people on the outskirts of Damascus.
Obama appeared to make some headway, however, with two influential Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who came out of a White House meeting convinced that Obama is willing to use air strikes not just to destroy Syrian chemical weapons capability but also to bolster Syrian rebels.
McCain, long an advocate of a more robust US approach to Syria, said failure to get behind strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would be “catastrophic.”
While Obama faced obstacles at home, key US ally France said it had evidence showing that Assad’s government had ordered chemical attacks and was determined to punish him.
The French government released a nine-page intelligence document that listed five points that suggested Assad’s fighters were behind the “massive and coordinated” Aug 21 chemical attack.
Assad, in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, warned the French to steer clear of policies hostile to Syrians or else, “the state will be their enemy.”
Obama’s abrupt decision to halt plans for a strike against Assad’s forces and instead wait for congressional approval has generated a raging debate just as the president prepares to depart today on a three-day trip to Sweden and Russia.
The biggest obstacle he faces is winning the support of members of his own party in the House of Representatives and conservative Republicans who see little need for the United States to get involved in distant civil wars.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who was among the Obama advisers on the call for the Democrats, urged support for giving Obama a resolution to use force, saying Syria had reached a “Munich moment,” according to participants.
This was a reference to 1938 Munich Agreement seen as appeasement by Britain and France to Adolf Hitler before World War Two.
The White House argument is that Syria must be punished for the chemical weapons onslaught and that at stake are the integrity of an international ban on such weapons and the need to safeguard US national security interests and allies Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
Syria has blamed the attack on rebel forces.
Samples linked to the Aug 21 attack were shipped yesterday to European labs and were due to arrive within hours, a UN statement said. UN chemical weapons experts visited the site of the attack last week.
Today, UN disarmament chief Angela Kane, who has just returned from Syria, will update more than 30 countries that co-signed a British letter asking the United Nations to investigate the attack, the statement said.
As with much in which the divided US Congress involves itself, there was deep disagreement on how to proceed.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a senior Democrat and an ally of Obama on many issues, complained that the wording of the White House’s request to Congress for the authorisation of the use of force was too open-ended and could lead to deep US involvement in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in more than two years of fighting.
“There is no limitation on putting American soldiers on the ground. There is no end point” on the resolution, he said. “The draft resolution presented by the administration is overly broad, it provides too much of a blank check to the executive.”