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Obama battles to convince Congress on Syria action

5 min

US President Barack Obama has launched an intense lobbying effort to win congressional support for US military intervention in Syria after his surprise announcement Saturday that he would seek authorisation from lawmakers before taking action.


US President Barack Obama on Sunday launched what promises to be an intense lobbying effort over the next week to convince a sceptical Congress to support  US military action in Syria when it returns from summer recess on September 9.

Obama, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, made personal calls to members of Congress over the weekend, a senior White House official told AFP, with more calls planned for Monday.

Meetings at the White House are also planned for influential members of Congress over the coming days.

The push comes as Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington had proof that the Syrian regime used sarin gas in the deadly August 21 attack near Damascus that prompted a fresh round of calls for military action.

Convincing Congress

Following Obama's surprise announcement that he would seek congressional approval before launching any military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the White House on Saturday formally asked Congress for the authorisation to conduct strikes in a draft resolution outlining potential operations.

It remains to be seen if the representatives of a war-weary US public will endorse a new military action overseas – or hand Obama a bitter political defeat that would either tie his hands or force him to act without the benefit of broad domestic support.

"In all calls and briefings, we will be making the same fundamental case: The failure to take action against Assad unravels the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use, and it risks emboldening Assad and his key allies – Hezbollah and Iran – who will see that there are no consequences for such a flagrant violation of an international norm," the senior White House official said.

"Anyone who is concerned about Iran and its efforts in the region should support this action."

Many influential lawmakers, including Republican Senator John McCain, so far remain unconvinced about supporting the White House's Syria resolution.

McCain told the CBS programme "Face The Nation" on Sunday that he would not support action in Syria until he sees "a strategy, a plan ... rather than just 'We're going to launch some cruise missiles' [and] that's it".

McCain went on to say that “the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar al-Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons – and by the way, we know he’s used them a number of times before – would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of what we tell the American people".

McCain, who has long supported intervention in the conflict and the removal of Assad, says any US military proposal would have to be more than just symbolic.

He said he and other senators found it worrying that Obama's top US military advisers have said that it doesn’t matter when the US strikes. “Well, that’s not a military action, then," McCain said. "That’s a symbolic action.”

Regional reaction

Key US regional ally Turkey also suggested that limited strikes were not the way to go.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has called for a robust international military intervention in Syria, said Sunday that limited strikes would only exacerbate the problem.

"Targeted strikes would not only fail to lead us toward a solution but would make conditions even more difficult in Syria," he told a meeting in Istanbul.

He added that Assad should "immediately leave office and go to a country willing to take him".

Turkey shares a long border with Syria and has seen an influx of more than 200,000 refugees since the crisis began in March 2011.

Meeting in Cairo on Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers issued a statement calling upon the United Nations and international community "to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures" while stopping short of calling for military strikes. The regional body has blamed the Assad regime for the alleged chemical weapons assault.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition had asked the Arab League ministers to back a US-led operation, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warning that the failure to do so would bolster Assad's forces to "pursue its crimes".

Assad and his ministers have remained defiant in the face of any proposed US military action.

"Syria... is capable of facing up to any external aggression just as it faces up to internal aggression every day, in the form of terrorist groups and those that support them," he said, according to reports by the SANA news agency.

Some Damascus residents view the US president's decision to seek approval instead of taking immediate action in Syria as a sign of weakness.

"He who talks a lot doesn't act," said Souad, a resident of the capital, calling the US leader a "coward" for delaying the decision.

"Obama is a coward," he told AFP. "He didn't strike because he knows that our President Bashar [al-Assad] is all-powerful."

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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