Sep 03, 2013

    Obama tries to sway his detractors

    PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his top aides launched a full-scale political offensive to persuade a sceptical Congress to approve a military strike against Syria, but faced a struggle to win over lawmakers from both parties and a war-weary American public.

    Mr Obama made calls to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, underscoring the task confronting the administration before it can go ahead with using force in response to a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Syrian government.

    Dozens of lawmakers, some in tennis shirts, cut short their vacations and streamed into the corridors of the Capitol building for a Sunday-afternoon intelligence briefing on Syria with Mr Obama's national-security team.

    When they emerged nearly three hours later, there was no immediate sign that the many sceptics in Congress had changed their minds.

    Many questioned the broad nature of the measure Mr Obama is seeking, suggesting it needed to be narrowed.

    Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, said: "I am very concerned about taking America into another war against a country that hasn't attacked us."

    On the way out of the briefing, she said the participants appeared "evenly divided" on whether to give the President approval.

    Most seemed convinced that Syria had engaged in chemical warfare.

    Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said: "The searing image of babies lined up dead, that's what I can't get out of my mind right now."

    But the credibility of the administration's intelligence is turning out to be a less important issue than the nature and usefulness of the response.

    Even as Secretary of State John Kerry took to the airwaves touting new evidence that deadly sarin gas was used in the Aug 21 chemical attack near Damascus, the scope of the challenge confronting the administration became apparent.

    Lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of dragging the United States into another open-ended Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden and the war fatigue of the American public.

    Polls show the public is largely opposed to US military action.

    Mr Kerry, the administration's most impassioned voice for intervention in Syria's 21/2-year civil war, told CNN: "This is squarely now in the hands of Congress."

    Lawmakers, for the most part, welcomed Mr Obama's decision to consult them, but looked to be in no hurry to reconvene early from their summer recess, which lasts until Monday.

    US military officials are using the delay to reassess which ships will be used for a strike, and which sites in Syria to target. One change was a decision to send the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and its entire strike group towards the Red Sea.

    Meanwhile, Syria has asked the United Nations to try to "prevent any aggression" against it.

    A letter from Syria's UN representative, Mr Bashar Al-Jaafari, said: "The Syrian government calls on UN Secretary-General (Ban Ki Moon) to assume his responsibilities...and to make efforts to prevent any aggression against Syria."