Created on Tuesday, 03 September 2013 Written by BRADLEY KLAPPER, Associated Press NEDRA PICKLER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's call for a military strike in Syria won significant momentum Tuesday, with leaders of both parties in Congress announcing they are convinced that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and that the United States should respond.
President Barack Obama, flanked by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks to media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting with members of Congress to discuss the situation in Syria. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Republican House Speaker John Boehner emerged from a White House meeting and told reporters: "This is something that the United States, as a country, needs to do. I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also said they will support Obama because the U.S. has a compelling national security interest to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.
But their endorsements still don't resolve the deep ambivalence and even opposition toward action in both parties, and Boehner's spokesman followed up the speaker's announcement by describing the resolution's passage as "an uphill battle." Dozens of conservative Republicans and several liberal Democrats have come out against intervention, and may be prepared to ignore the positions of their leaders and the president.
Pelosi stressed that Americans need to hear more of the intelligence to be convinced that a strike is necessary. "I'm hopeful that the American people are persuaded," she said.
"This is behavior outside the circle of civilized human behavior and we must respond," she argued as she left the West Wing.
Obama met with more than a dozen lawmakers in the White House Cabinet Room to press the case for strikes aimed at dismantling Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. The president said he's confident Congress will authorize the strike and tried to assure the public that involvement in Syria will be a "limited, proportional step."
"This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan," Obama said.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Tuesday that he was working with panel Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to craft a resolution narrower than the broad measure the administration proposed on Saturday. He said their resolution, which could be ready as early as Tuesday evening, would limit the duration of the operation and prevent the deployment of U.S. ground troops.
Obama indicated he is open to changing the language to address lawmakers' concerns and called for a prompt vote.
"So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, to degrade his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future, as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark," Obama said.
Sen. Rand Paul said he would probably vote against any resolution. But he said it also wouldn't be helpful to amend the resolution in a way that constrains the president too much to execute military action, if authorized.
After Obama met with the congressional leadership, administration officials offered a classified briefing for all members of Congress. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., emerged saying he has concerns about a U.S. attack, including how Assad's purported use of chemical weapons represented a threat to the U.S. "There's an old saying, we don't have a dog in the fight. In this case, back home in west Virginia, they're saying we don't have any friends in the fight either," Manchin said.
Asked specifically about Boehner's endorsement, freshman Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., said he still hadn't made up his mind.
"Being new here, I'm very skeptical of Republicans and Democrats that have dragged us into wars of the past," he told reporters. "Still today, when we look at Afghanistan and Iraq, I am questioning: What is the end goal within these countries? What have we accomplished with so many lives being lost?"
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck put responsibility for winning votes in the White House's hands in a written statement following up on the speaker's brief comment to reporters. "Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping effort. All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House," Buck said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also attended the meeting with lawmakers before heading over to Capitol Hill for testimony later in the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
"We are talking about weapons of mass destruction. This is a war crime," said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, who attended the White House meeting as the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "If we didn't respond in kind it would send a message to every despot, every thug, every dictator, every terrorist group in the world that you can commit war crimes and murder your own citizens with impunity and nothing is going to happen."
Boehner said only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad. "We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary," he said.
Boehner was the only Republican to speak to reporters after the White House meeting and he took no questions. Cantor announced his support in a statement that argued, "America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also attended the meeting, but did not commit to supporting authorization afterward and instead encouraged the president to keep updating the public. "While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region," he said in a statement.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.
Obama's task is complicated further because he leaves for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden and then attending the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Vice President Joe Biden's office said he was postponing a trip to Florida Thursday to stay in Washington and work on Syria while Obama is away.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Donna Cassata and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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Syria is said to be hiding weapons, moving troops
RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas.
Politically, President Bashar Assad has gone on the offensive, warning in a rare interview with Western media that any military action against Syria could spark a regional war.
If the U.S. opts for missile strikes, Assad's reaction could have a major effect on the trajectory of Syria's civil war. Neighboring countries could get dragged into a wider conflict, or it could be back to business as usual for a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people over 2½ years.
The main Western-backed opposition group says that during the buildup last week to what seemed like an imminent U.S. attack, the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons into residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide. Three Damascus residents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed such movements.
One man said two members of the elite Republican Guards broke into an empty house he owns and showed him an official document stating they were authorized to do so because Syria is at war. A woman in another area said soldiers moved into a school next to her house.
That trend is likely to continue in the coming days after the regime won a reprieve following President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional approval for military action.
"The Syrian regime knows there are 30-40 potential targets for U.S. airstrikes, and they have had ample time to prepare," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and director of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. "Half of them, if not more, have been evacuated, moved or camouflaged. This is the natural thing to do."
Obama said last week that he believes the U.S. should strike Syria for what the administration says was a deadly chemical weapons attack by Assad's forces on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. The administration has stressed, however, that any operation would be limited and not aimed at tipping the balance of power in Syria's civil war.
In an interview published Monday with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad refused to say how Syria would respond to Western strikes, but warned that "the risk of a regional war exists."
The regime has a range of options if the U.S. does bomb. It could retaliate with rockets against U.S. allies in the region. It could unleash allies like Hezbollah against Western targets abroad. Or it could do nothing — and score propaganda points by portraying itself as victim of U.S. aggression.
The regime's choice, analysts say, will probably depend on the magnitude of the American military action: The bigger and more sustained the strikes, the more likely the government in Damascus will feel compelled to respond.
If Washington follows through with calibrated strikes, analysts say, Assad may reach for a political card, not a military one.
"His first option is propaganda value," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Assad could try to foster the notion "that the West is again attacking a Middle Eastern state, an Arab state, without the right international legitimacy. And he can bolster that dynamic, that narrative, by showing that it's had a cost on innocent civilians."
One way to achieve that would be to show the world images of civilians purportedly killed by American strikes.
"If he's able to score points from this, he will feel that he's actually won without actually engaging in a military response," Shaikh said.
Assad charted a similar course after Israeli airstrikes in May that targeted advanced weapons destined for Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah. His regime portrayed the attacks as proof of the rebels' collusion with Israel, denounced the strikes as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and dispatched an obscure militant group to threaten retaliation.
In terms of military responses, Assad could launch rockets at U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan or Israel. But that could touch off a prolonged military engagement with an outside power at a time when the regime is already in a bloody fight for its survival.
An attack against NATO-member Turkey could trigger a response from the entire military alliance, while Jordan hosts about a dozen U.S. F-16 jets, a Patriot missile battery and around 1,000 American troops.
As for Israel, the Assad regime could launch rockets at the Jewish state, or turn to Hezbollah to do so. The militant group, which fought Israel to a standstill in a 34-day war in 2006, is believed to have a well-stocked arsenal of missiles capable of hitting the country's major cities.
But analysts say Syria is unlikely to pursue such a course unless the U.S. strikes pose an immediate threat to Assad's grip on power.
Hezbollah would have a lot to lose. The group is already facing flak at home for fighting alongside Syrian government troops against the rebels. A full-on confrontation with Israel on behalf of Syria would probably be a tough sell to its Shiite constituents at home, let alone the broader Lebanese public.
"I can't see a situation whereby they would accept an order from Assad to, say, attack Israel or attack some domestic enemies. I think that would be too damaging for their position," said Chris Phillips, a Syria specialist at Queen Mary University in London.
Israeli defense officials also say the odds of retaliation by Syria or Hezbollah are very low. Still, Israel has deployed Iron Dome anti-missile batteries in the Tel Aviv area and toward its northern frontier with Syria.
Between these two extremes lies a middle path for Assad, which would involve an attack such as a car bombing carried out by a sympathetic militant group.
"Something to indicate to the outside world that it's dangerous to mess with the Assad regime, that they have levers that can cause damage elsewhere, while also plausibly denying that they've had direct impact," Phillips said.
As an example, Phillips pointed to a double car bombing earlier this year in Turkey that killed more than 50 people. Turkey blames Syria, while Syria denies any role.