WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is holding its first public hearing about U.S. plans for military intervention in Syria as President Barack Obama seeks to convince skeptical Americans and their lawmakers about the need to respond to last month's alleged sarin gas attack outside Damascus.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.
The president's request for congressional authorization for limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is at the heart of all the discussions planned in Washington over the next several days as Obama sends his top national security advisers to the Capitol for a flurry of briefings. And with the outcome of any vote in doubt in a war-weary Congress, Obama was to meet Tuesday with leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, the foreign relations committees and the intelligence committees.
Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.
But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.
"There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack that U.S. intelligence says killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.
After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.
"Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."
Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.
But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.
Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.
In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.
In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."
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.
The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?
Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.
Obama's task is complicated further because he is leaving for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.
Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.
Since Obama's stunning announcement Saturday that he'd seek congressional authority, dozens of members of Congress have issued statements. Most have praised the administration for its course of action, and several have suggested they are leaning one way or another. But precious few have come out definitively one way or another.
McCain said he believed many members were still "up for grabs."
CHICAGO (AP) - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has cancelled a Tuesday luncheon appearance before Chicago's business and political elite to head to Washington and begin preparing for congressional debate on possible action in Syria.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat was among the 15 members of Congress briefed on the situation by telephone last week.
President Barack Obama says he'll seek congressional approval for military strikes against the Assad regime. He's trying to rally support among Americans and congressmen.
Durbin was to speak about sentencing for non-violent drug offenders Tuesday before the City Club of Chicago. His office issued a notice Monday that as a member of Senate leadership and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he'll be in Washington preparing for debate instead.
As he continues commemorating Labor Day in his state, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says he supports President Obama's approach when it comes to U.S. involvement in Syria.
The President announced over the weekend that he will seek congressional approval for military strikes against the Assad regime. Congress returns to Washington on September 9. Governor Quinn said Sunday that he trusts the President.
Quinn's Democratic challenger Bill Daly also says he agrees with Obama's decision to take the matter to Congress. Daly says Obama has been criticized for not taking action and now it's time for him to act.
United Nations experts are investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria as the United States and allies prepare for the possibility of a punitive strike against President Bashar Assad's regime, blamed by the Syrian opposition for the attack. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 355 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack.
Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Thursday and Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:
Assad said his country "will defend itself against any aggression," signaling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day.
The British Parliament voted down endorsing military action against Syria, despite a strong push by Prime Minister David Cameron to support potential U.S. strikes against Assad. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond confirmed that the country's forces would not be involved in any strike.
The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande approves it, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. Hollande, who met with the head of the Syrian opposition, stopped short of announcing a military intervention.
A meeting of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members ended quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria's crisis. U.N. experts in Syria are expected to leave the country Saturday.
Thousands of Israelis crowded gas-mask distribution facilities to get free masks, fearing Israel could be targeted in retaliation by Syria if it is attacked. A mob forcibly took gas masks from a distribution center in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Officers were deployed to maintain order Thursday in Haifa, where more than 5,000 people waited for protective kits.
Officials placed Turkey on alert against possible chemical attacks from Syria and stocked food and gas masks along their shared border. Bunkers were designated in seven border areas to protect people in the area.
President Hassan Rouhani said his country will press forward with efforts to ward off military action by the U.S. and its allies against the Tehran-backed Syrian regime.
White House officials said President Barack Obama was preparing for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days, after the British Parliament rejected sending that country's forces to support a military strike. Obama also spoke by phone with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has asked the president to make a sharper case on the legal justification for any military strike in Syria and its objective. The administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them Syria's government used chemical weapons in last week's attack.
Russia's foreign ministry asked the U.N. to continue its inspection of places where chemical weapons might have been used in Syria. A foreign minister spokesman said the team should inspect three other locations, including a suburb of Aleppo, where the government in Damascus alleges the rebels have used poisoned gas.
A poll by ZDF television found that a majority of Germans oppose Western military intervention in Syria and don't want their country to provide backing for any U.S.-led strike.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said any international military action against Syria would pose a "serious threat" to the security and stability of the region, particularly Lebanon.
Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said his country strongly opposes military action against Syria and would not support possible punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies.
Romania's foreign ministry told its citizens in Syria to leave the country "as soon as possible." They were told to get out via Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Wary of another war, congressional Republicans and Democrats pressed President Barack Obama to explain why the U.S. military should attack Syria and involve Americans in a deadly civil conflict that has roiled the Mideast.
"What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?" House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote the president on Wednesday as the drumbeat of war grew louder.
Exasperated members of the House and Senate said the president has failed to make a case for U.S. military action against Syria despite the administration's conclusion that the Syrian government carried out a large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians last week.
The administration signaled Wednesday that it would act against the Syrian government even without the backing of allies or the United Nations in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack outside the Syrian capital of Damascus on Aug. 21.
Some lawmakers insisted that Obama, despite his standing as commander in chief, cannot unilaterally order military action against Syria without congressional authorization.
The president said in a PBS interview Wednesday that he had not made a decision about how the United States would respond.
In his letter, Boehner underscored that he has been supportive of administration policy to date as Obama has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign and insisted that the use of deadly chemical weapons would be a gross violation of international norms.
Boehner wrote that in light of the administration's contention that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its people, Obama should provide "a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives."
The administration was planning a teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and national security committees, U.S. officials and congressional aides said. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, complained in a letter to Obama on Tuesday that informal briefings and conversations with administration officials have focused on the general situation in Syria and included no discussions of steps being considered or a comprehensive strategy.
Boehner asked Obama to "personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve American credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy."
The speaker also pressed the president to provide a legal justification for any U.S. military action.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House to Boehner's request.
In the House, 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats have signed a letter to Obama demanding that he seek congressional authorization for any military action against Syria. The letter written by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., argues that intervention without a direct threat to the United States and without Congress' approval would be unconstitutional.
Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned that an attack might be ineffective and draw the United States into the Syrian civil war, now in its third year.
"Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of 'doing something' will not secure our interests in Syria," Smith said in a statement.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he informed the administration that he could not support any military strike against Syria unless Obama presents a detailed strategy to Congress and provides a defense budget to support any action.
An increasing number of lawmakers have asked what would be the end result of U.S. military intervention against a Mideast country where the Assad government and rebel forces have struggled for more than two years, with an estimated 100,000 killed and millions displaced.
"The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said.
In his letter, Boehner raised 14 questions that he asked Obama to answer, including what the administration would do if Syria retaliates against U.S. allies in the region, whether the administration would launch additional military strikes if the initial ones proved ineffective and what was the intended effect of such a step.
Boehner alluded to the 10-plus years of fighting in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the need for the administration to have strong public and congressional support for U.S. involvement in a Mideast war.
"Our military, as well as their families, deserve to have the confidence that we collectively have their backs — and a thorough strategy in place," the speaker wrote.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is laying the groundwork for potential military action in Syria in the coming days, with intelligence agencies readying additional evidence about last week's alleged chemical weapons attack and high-ranking U.S. officials declaring there was "no doubt" that Bashar Assad's government was to blame.
Administration officials also said Assad's actions posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, providing President Barack Obama with a potential legal justification for launching a strike without authorization from the United Nations or Congress. However, officials did not detail how the U.S. was directly threatened by an attack contained within Syria's borders. Nor did they present concrete proof that Assad was responsible.
"Allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to, threat to the United States' national security," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
The U.S. and international partners were unlikely to undertake military action before Thursday. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron will convene an emergency meeting of Parliament, where lawmakers were expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for a British response.
Obama and Cameron spoke Tuesday, their second known conversation since the weekend. A Cameron spokesman said the two leaders agreed that a chemical attack had taken place, and that the Assad regime was responsible. Cameron "confirmed that the government had not yet taken a decision on the specific nature of our response, but that it would be legal and specific to the chemical weapons attack," the spokesman said.
Also Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden became the highest-ranking U.S. official to charge that Assad's government fired chemical weapons last week near Damascus. Assad has denied using chemical weapons, calling the allegations "preposterous."
"There's no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime," Biden said.
Obama is weighing a response focused narrowly on punishing Assad for violating international agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons, an act the president repeatedly has said would cross a "red line." Officials said the goal was not to drive the Syrian leader from power nor affect the broader trajectory of Syria's bloody civil war, which is now in its third year.
"The options we are considering are not about regime change," Carney told reporters.
According to U.S. officials, the most likely military operation would be largely sea-based, with the strikes coming primarily from Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea. Fighter jets often are deployed to monitor the area and protect the ships, but Syria's robust air defense system makes airstrikes more difficult and risky.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said military forces stood ready to strike Syria immediately if the commander in chief gave the order. The Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean within range of targets inside Syria and also has warplanes in the region.
"We are ready to go," Hagel said in a BBC television interview Tuesday while traveling in Asia.
Ahead of any strike, the U.S. also planned to release additional intelligence it said would directly link Assad to the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs. Syrian activists said hundreds of people were killed in the attack. A U.S. official said the intelligence report was expected to include "signals intelligence" — information gathered from intercepted communications.
All of the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
Even before releasing that information, U.S. officials said they had very little doubt that Assad was culpable in the attack, based on witness reports, information on the number of victims and the symptoms of those killed or injured, and intelligence showing the Syrian government has not lost control of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Other administration officials echoed Biden's comments, which marked a subtle shift in the administration's rhetoric on who bears responsibility for the attack. Earlier in the week officials would say only that there was "very little doubt" Assad was responsible.
QUAD CITIES, Ill. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is advocating for the U.S. to launch a missile strike at the Syrian regime which is believed to have used chemical weapons on civilians.
The Quad City Times reports that Kirk made the comments Monday while visiting the Rock Island Arsenal.
Kirk opposes extending "boots on the ground" U.S. military involvement in Syria. He likened an air strike to the 1998 attack on Iraq aimed at curbing weapons of mass destruction. Kirk is a Highland Park Republican and a recently retired Naval intelligence officer.
Secretary of State John Kerry has decried what he called Syria's "indiscriminate slaughter of civilians," but hasn't indicated whether the U.S. will take action. Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied launching a chemical attack.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry says there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria, with intelligence strongly pointing to Bashar Assad's government, and "this international norm cannot be violated without consequences."
Kerry's tough language marked the clearest justification yet for U.S. military action in Syria, which, if President Barack Obama decides to approve, most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare.
"By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable," said Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.
Obama has not decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The White House said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line." The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria's civil war began more than two years ago.
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
"We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week's attack. The U.S. said Syria's delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use. U.N. officials disagreed that it was too late.
"What is before us today is real and it is compelling," Kerry said. "Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts."
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Administration officials said the U.S. had additional intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.
Officials stopped short of unequivocally stating that Assad's government was behind the attack. But they said there was "very little doubt" that it originated with the regime, noting that Syria's rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack.
It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a "red line" and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.
Last week's attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama's credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Syrian activists say the Aug. 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The U.S. Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship can launch ballistic missiles.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had "preliminary communication" with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.
It's unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama's travel schedule — he's due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.
MOSCOW (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his troops did not use chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held suburb in a Damascus last week where hundreds of people died.
The United States have said that there is little doubt that Assad's regime was responsible for the attack on Aug. 21 in the capital's eastern suburbs. Anti-government activists and Doctors Without Borders say that more than 300 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas.
Assad told Russia's Izvestia daily that the accusations that his troops were responsible were "politically motivated."
"This is nonsense," Assad was quoted as saying in an interview published Monday. "First they level the accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence."
Assad said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear front line between regime and rebel forces.
"How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?" he said. "This is not logical. That's why these accusations are politically motivated, and a recent string of victories of the government forces is the reason for it."
Syria said Sunday that a U.N. team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as "too late to be credible."
With France, Britain, Israel and some U.S. congressmen urging swift military action against Assad's regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the U.N. team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no decision had been made on a military intervention but that any response would be "proportionate."
"It will be negotiated in coming days," Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. He said that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic, but that all options remain on the table.
"The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing," Fabius said.
Russia, who has been a staunch ally of Syria, said last week that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Two top lawmakers are calling for an immediate U.S. military response to the Syria's suspected chemical weapons attack that killed at least a hundred civilians last week.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker is calling for the U.S. to respond in a "surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention." The Tennessee lawmaker says such a response should not involve U.S. troops on the ground, however.
Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York says the U.S. must respond "quickly," together with NATO allies, possibly using cruise missile strikes, as the U.S. and NATO did in Libya.
A senior administration official said Sunday there is "very little doubt" a chemical weapon was used, but added the president had not yet decided how to respond.
Corker and Engel appeared on "Fox News Sunday."