Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Congressional leaders back Obama on Syria strike

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria alongside Speaker of the House John Boehner (L),
 R-Ohio and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California
After meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he believed responding with military force to an alleged chemical attack in Syria is "something the United States as a country needs to do." Obama has urged Congress to act quickly on a resolution authorizing action against Syria, as he ramps up his effort to win support for limited strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's forces in response to the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that the U.S. says killed nearly 1,500 people.

"I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action," Boehner said.

During the meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, Obama said he was confident Congress would vote in favor of military action and said the United States had a broad plan to help the rebels defeat Syrian government forces.

"What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities," Obama told reporters. "At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also expressed support for Obama's call for action, and reiterated that any planned strike would be of "short duration."

Boehner and Pelosi's backing came a few hours before Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make a case for military intervention in Syria.

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said Tuesday that the debate about military strikes against Syria is not about Obama's "red line" that weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated.

Instead, Kerry argued, "this debate is about the world's red line." He said it is "a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw."

Refusal to act on on Syria, Kerry said, would undermine U.S. credibility, including its pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"This is not the time for arm-chair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter," Kerry said.

Pelosi tried to reinforce the notion that any strike in Syria would be "targeted, tailored," adding that she didn't think that congressional authorization was necessary, but believed it was "a good thing." Pelosi said that trying to get authorization for any action from the U.N. Security Council, with pushback from Russia and China, was "a luxury we cannot afford." She also said that she does not believe Congress would reject the resolution calling for the use of force in Syria.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he would also support Obama because the U.S. had a compelling national security interest to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.  

Their endorsements do not, however, resolve the deep ambivalence and opposition in both parties about taking action. 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. After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans are opposed to any new military action overseas.

By a 48 percent to 29 percent margin, more Americans oppose than support launching military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, according to a new national survey from the Pew Research Center.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande, who has been outspoken about the need to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, said Tuesday that he would wait for a decision from the U.S. Congress on possible military action in Syria and insisted his country would not strike the Assad regime alone.

The U.S. said a sarin gas attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by the aid group Doctors Without Borders.

 Al Jazeera and wire services

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