Skip to main content

President Barack Obama, center, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, Sept. 3, 2013. Obama intensified his push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria on Tuesday, meeting Republican and Democratic leaders.CHRISTOPHER GREGORY/The New York Times

President Barack Obama faces an old-fashioned political fight on Capitol Hill before he can let loose a 21st-century punitive strike against the Syrian regime for its alleged use of poison gas against its own people.

The President rounded up vital support Tuesday from key Congressional leaders – including Senator John McCain, the hawk- ish Republican who ran against Mr. Obama in 2008, and Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio centrist who often struggles to control the fractious Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

"Neither he, nor most of America want to be dragged into the Syrian civil war," Secretary of State John Kerry assured skeptical senators Tuesday as he repeatedly said Mr. Obama was only seeking backing for an attack limited in scope and duration. "The President is listening to the American people," he added.

"This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan," Mr. Obama has said. But he has yet to persuade a skeptical nation.

A solid majority of Americans – war-weary after more than a decade of far-off and still unfinished conflicts – oppose attacking Syria, even in the face of what the administration says is overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime has gassed innocent civilians, including hundreds of children.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found Americans opposed, by a four-to-one margin, any strike on Syria. The poll taken in the last four days echoed others in finding Americans strongly against Mr. Obama's proclaimed call for military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Winning congressional approval authorizing use of military force in Syria – likely to take the form of a cruise-missile attack – won't be easy. No president has ever been denied such backing but some have simply avoided asking.

Backing in the Senate looks likely but the battle for the Republican-dominated House will be far harder, especially given visceral Tea Party opposition to everything the President proposes as well as Democrats who remember the Iraq invasion and are leery of yet another White House call for war predicated on claims of "incontrovertible" intelligence.

Having House leaders on his side doesn't guarantee Mr. Obama broad bipartisan support, and even if he convinces Congress, he may lack international legality.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a renewed plea for a diplomatic resolution to the 2 1/2 years of bloodshed in Syria, said the use of force "is lawful only when in exercise of self-defence … or when the Security Council approves of such action." Given Russia's implacable opposition to any U.S. strike and Moscow's willingness to use its veto to block any authorizing UN resolution, Mr. Obama will have few allies and scant international legitimacy if he orders the U.S. military into action against Syria.

The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, said the civil war has now displaced 4.25 million people inside Syria and left two million as refugees in neighbouring countries – in all one-third of the Syrian population.

Mr. Obama left Washington Tuesday night bound for Sweden and then on to a G20 summit in Russia, after lobbying congressional leaders at the White House.

Mr. Boehner gave his backing after the meeting, but made made it clear that it was up to Mr. Obama to find the votes he needs in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. "Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the Speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping effort," Mr. Boehner's office said in a statement.

House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor also said he would support Mr. Obama's call for military action against Syria.

In sometimes-testy exchanges during his appearance at the Senate Foreign Relations committee Tuesday, Mr. Kerry warned skeptical senators that a failure to punish Syria would embolden other dictators, terror groups and terrorist-supporting states.

"Iran is hoping you look the other way," he said. "Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail" and "North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day."

He assured senators they could rely on Mr. Obama's promise of "no boots on the ground." But Mr. Kerry, a former naval officer who once testified against the U.S. war in Vietnam, had no clear answer when challenged over what might follow a missile strike on Syria.

What if the U.S. attacks spiral into a wider regional war, asked Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch. What if, he continued, in a few months, President al-Assad "crawls out of his rat hole and says 'I stood up to the strongest power on earth.'"

Mr. Kerry said that was quite possible.

Some Democrats were openly opposed, despite personal sessions with Mr. Obama. "There's an old saying, 'We don't have a dog in the fight,'" said Senator Joe Manchin. "In this case, back home in West Virginia, they're saying we don't have any friends in the fight either."

While details of the planned strike weren't revealed, another secret session is planned for Wednesday when the scale and scope of an attack will be discussed at further Congressional sessions. Mr. Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were all expected to return for the classified session.

Demonstrators, from the same Code Pink group that opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, disrupted the Senate hearings several times. Clad in pink and carrying pink placards, they were quickly hustled out by police.

As she was forced out, Medea Benjamin, one of the protesters called out: "Cruise missiles means another war; Americans don't want another war."

Mr. Kerry, looking uncomfortable, interjected. "You know, the first time I testified before this committee when I was 27 years old I had feelings very similar feelings."