Obama meets with bipartisan Congressional leaders
at the White House on Syria.
Obama wins key backing for Syria strike
Washington, September 4, 2013
President Barack Obama won the backing of key figures in the US Congress, including Republicans, in his call for limited US strikes on Syria to punish President Bashar Al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they reached an agreement on a draft authorization for the use of military force in Syria, paving the way for a vote by the committee on Wednesday. However, the draft is much narrower than the request made by Obama and includes a provision barring the use of U.S. troops on the ground.
Speaking after the United Nations said two million Syrians had fled a conflict that posed the greatest threat to world peace since the Vietnam war, Obama said on Tuesday the United States also has a broader plan to help rebels defeat Assad's forces.
"What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities," Obama said. "At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."
Having startled friends and foes alike by delaying a punitive attack on Assad until Congress reconvenes and agrees, Obama met congressional leaders at the White House to urge a prompt decision and assure them it did not mean another long war like Iraq or Afghanistan.
John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both pledged their support for military action after the meeting.
Votes are expected to be held in the Senate and House next week, with the Republican-led House presenting the tougher challenge for Obama.
The House leadership has indicated the votes will be "conscience votes," meaning they will not seek to influence members' votes on party lines. All the same, it would have been a blow to Obama if he had not secured the backing of the top two Republicans.
"I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action," Boehner told reporters.
The president said strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons would hurt Assad's forces while other US action would bolster his opponents - though the White House has insisted it is not seeking "regime change."
Among other provisions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee draft, which was obtained by Reuters, sets a 60-day limit on US military action in Syria, with a possibility of a single 30-day extension subject to conditions.
The compromise deal reached by Senator Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the panel, and Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican, includes a provision banning any use of US armed forces on the ground in Syria, according to the draft document.
It requires Obama to consult with Congress and submit to the Senate and House of Representatives foreign relations panel a strategy for negotiating a political settlement to the Syria conflict, including a review of all forms of assistance to the rebels fighting to oust Assad.
Secretary of State John Kerry initially told the committee he would prefer not to bar the use of ground troops to preserve options if Syria "imploded" or there was a threat of chemical weapons being obtained by extremists.
But when Corker, the Republican senator, told Kerry he "didn't find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground," Kerry quickly, and repeatedly, backtracked.
Kerry said he was simply "thinking out loud" and raising a hypothetical situation, but he did not want to leave the door open to sending ground troops to Syria.
"Let's shut the door now," Kerry said. "The answer is, whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress or the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war."
An Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday that Obama has failed so far to convince most Americans. Some 56 percent of those surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria, while only 19 percent supported action, essentially unchanged from last week.
In remarks that appeared to question the legality of US plans to strike Syria without UN backing, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the use of force is only legal when it is in self-defence or with Security Council authorization.
If UN inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Security Council, which has been deadlocked on the 2-1/2-year Syrian civil war, should overcome its differences and take action, Ban said.
Assad denies deploying poison gas that killed hundreds of civilians last month.
The Syrian opposition, which said a forensic scientist had defected to the rebel side bringing evidence of the Assad forces' use of sarin gas in March, has appealed to Western allies to send them weapons and use their air power to end a war that has killed more than 100,000 and made millions homeless. - Reuters