Last updated: September 2, 2013 10:24 pm

Obama lobbies Congress to support action on Syria

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Obama: Syria question must be debated in Congress©EPA

Barack Obama and his cabinet have launched an all-out lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill ahead of a vote, probably to be held next week, on the White House’s request for Congress to authorise a punitive attack on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Mr Obama, who has had an often frosty relationship with Congress, has phoned numerous key figures in both parties, and met on Monday with John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the hawkish Republican senators.

Mr McCain called the meeting “encouraging” and said any decision by Congress to block a military strike would be “catastrophic”.

The lobbying effort is being spearheaded by John Kerry, the secretary of state, will appear with Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon chief, before a hastily called hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

Joe Biden, the vice-president, is also phoning many House and Senate members. The president, Mr Biden, Mr Kerry and Mr Hagel are former senators.

Mr Kerry told House Democr ats in a briefing on Monday that the US faced a “Munich moment” with Syria, a pointed reference to pre-second world war appeasement, according to Politico.

Mr Obama surprised his own staff, Congress and US allies when he announced on Saturday that he would go to Congress for authorisation, even though his administration maintains he has the power to strike Syria without it.

Mr Obama’s decision, made in the wake of the UK parliament’s vote against British participation in military action, has also muddied political and diplomatic calculations throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, said on Monday he was convinced by evidence he had seen that the Syrian regime was behind an August chemical weapons attack in Damascus that the US said killed up to 1,400. He added, though, that it would be up to individual states to decide whether to participate in any retaliatory action.

“I can tell you that personally I am convinced not only that a chemical attack has taken place . . . but I am also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible,” he told a news conference.

An impending attack by the US on Syria has split Arab nations and an international community wary of further American wars but eager to see the Damascus regime punished for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

A divided Arab League on Sunday accused Mr Assad of responsibility for the attack but stopped short of endorsing any punitive US military strike without the approval of the UN.

Congress is deeply divided across party lines and into multiple groupings on national security issues, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and recent revelations about US intelligence influencing lawmakers’ views.

At one end of the spectrum, hawks like Mr McCain and Mr Graham support strikes but only as part of a more aggressive US posture aimed at forcing Mr Assad from power.

At the other end, many liberal Democrats either oppose or are sceptical about military action, as are an increasing number of libertarian Republicans in both the House and the Senate.

The Republicans control the House but Democratic votes may be needed to get an authorisation motion across the line in that chamber, as many conservatives will not support Mr Obama under any circumstances.

James Ceaser, a prominent conservative intellectual, urged Republicans to back a motion to strike Syria, even if they think it will “prove ineffective, do no good, waste money, entail unforeseen risks or if they have no confidence in (Mr Obama’s) judgment”.

“The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act,” he said in a blog post.

A similar dynamic is at work in part of the Middle East.

“Many people who want to see the Americans strike the regime in Syria don’t say it clearly,” said Salam Kawakibi, a political scientist and deputy director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a consortium of think tanks.

“They’re afraid of their reputations as nationalists or leftists. They have a schizophrenia between their desire to free countries and the heritage of the anti-imperialist postures of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Russia, Syria’s international patron, continued to shield Damascus and on Monday called US evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons “completely unconvincing”.

“Yes, we were shown some computations, which did not contain anything specific: no geographic coordinates, nor names, nor any evidence that the samples were taken by professionals,” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told students at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.

Meanwhile, fighting continued throughout Syria. Activists reported dozens killed in artillery barrages, air strikes and gunfights. An official from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Monday that 7m, a third of all Syrians, had been displaced from their homes in the two-and-a-half-year conflict. More than a million Syrian children have been registered abroad as refugees, the organisation announced last month.

Additional reporting by Charles Clover in Moscow

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