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White House Pushes Case for Syria Strike Amid Skepticism

White House Pushes Bid for Syria Strike Amid Lawmaker Skepticism
Syrian rebel fighters walk in the Umayyad Mosque complex in the city of Aleppo. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Sept. 8 (Bloomberg) -- White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said “nobody now debates” intelligence showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for a deadly chemical attack near Damascus as members of Congress remained skeptical a U.S. military attack is warranted.

As it considers President Barack Obama’s request for military action, Congress needs to determine “should there be consequences” for the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people, McDonough said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast. Assad “is responsible for this and should be held accountable,” he said.

Obama, as part of a campaign to win congressional support for a limited military strike, will make his case to the public in a round of interviews with major television networks tomorrow and in a national address on the evening of Sept. 10.

Lawmakers are returning to Washington to reconvene tomorrow after a five-week recess, with the Senate due to vote on a use-of-force resolution this week. The House of Representatives then will take it up, and the measure appears to face an especially hard sell in that chamber amid opposition from an unusual coalition of antiwar Democrats and anti-Obama Republicans.

“If I were the president, I would withdraw my request for the authorization at this particular point,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said on CNN. “I don’t believe the support is there in Congress. I think people view war as a last resort and I don’t think people think that we’re at that point.”

Little Support

Polls have shown little support for Obama’s plan among an American public weary of war following protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S.

The president’s weekly radio and Internet address yesterday highlighted his arguments that an assault is justified because of what his administration has determined was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s regime, and that a military response serves U.S. national security interests.

“Deciding to use military force is the most solemn decision we can make as a nation,” Obama said. “Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.”

McDonough on ABC’s “This Week” said the resolution will pass in Congress. He offered a similar prediction on CBS.

Using Force

Obama said last year such use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the U.S. in considering whether to get militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. Still, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 30 that Assad was to blame for the chemical weapons attack and Obama had decided a military response was required, the president announced the next day that he had decided to seek congressional authorization for use of force.

If lawmakers vote against Obama’s resolution to strike Syria, “it’s very hard for him to act,” David Axelrod, a former White House aide, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” broadcast. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will offer an amendment to Obama’s resolution that would bar the administration from initiating an attack should Congress fail to pass the measure, he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Pryor, Sanchez

Obama’s prospects in the Senate became more clouded yesterday with the announcement by Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat up for re-election next year, that he opposes U.S. military action against Syria “at this time.”

He said the administration hadn’t proved “a compelling national security interest” or provided a clearly defined mission for an assault. Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez of California is leaning against the measure, she said on NBC, adding that she didn’t think the strike could be limited.

Other lawmakers in both parties have expressed concerns that the U.S. may be drawn into the more than two-year-old Syrian civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have died, or even a conflict that expands to include other regional actors, such as Iran or Hezbollah.

“What we’re talking about is not an open-ended intervention,” Obama said in his weekly address. “This would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan. There would be no American boots on the ground.”

Saudi Backing

A strike that is limited in time and scope would hinder the Syrian government’s ability to carry out similar attacks in the future, he said.

While the U.S. so far has failed to gain broad international support for the president’s proposal, his administration says momentum is beginning to shift in its favor.

Speaking in Paris today after a meeting with Arab foreign ministers, Kerry said Saudi Arabia backs a strike and other nations will soon declare their support.

“I am not going to name the other countries simply because we agreed in the meeting that they will go back and make their own announcements, which they will do in the next 24 hours,” he said today at a news conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah.

Russia and China were among nine nations at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last week that didn’t join a statement condemning the use of chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack. Other nations not backing the statement were Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa.

10 Nations

Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom sided with the U.S. in condemning the attack.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, has questioned U.S. evidence of the Syrian government’s culpability in the attack and has vowed to continue buttressing Assad’s regime with weapons.

The British parliament last month voted down military intervention in the conflict. While France has supported the U.S. call for the use of force, yesterday it backed the European Union’s position to wait until the United Nations completes its report on the massacre.

Fabius said yesterday that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told him that the organization’s report will be presented “very soon.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Victoria Stilwell in Washington at vstilwell1@bloomberg.net Brian Wingfield in Washington at bwingfield3@bloomberg.net; Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Rohner at mrohner@bloomberg.net

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