US Senate panel votes to authorise force in Syria
WASHINGTON (AP) - United States (US) President Barack Obama's request for speedy congressional backing of a military strike in Syria advanced in the Senate on Wednesday, hours after the President left open the possibility he would order retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.
A resolution cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote after last-minute alterations to support "decisive changes to the present military balance of power" in Syria's civil war. It would rule out US combat operations on the ground.
The measure is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timetable for a vote is uncertain.
The support seen in the Senate will be harder to find in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials made the case for action on Wednesday during a heated House hearing.
The Senate panel's vote marked the first formal response in Congress to Mr Obama's unexpected announcement last weekend that he was putting off an expected cruise missile strike against Syria and instead was first asking lawmakers to unite behind such a plan.
The President was in Sweden after a day of diplomacy when the vote occurred. At a news conference earlier, he said, "I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security".
In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress' credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line". Asked about that comment, Mr Obama said that line had already been drawn by a chemical weapons treaty ratified by countries around the world.
"That wasn't something I made up," he said.
The Obama administration blames a chemical weapons attack that took place on Aug 21 on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple Mr Assad were to blame.
At the House hearing, Mr Kerry said Mr Assad had used chemical weapons 11 times, including once last spring. At that time, he said, Mr Obama did not have a "compelling" enough case to push for a US military response.
As for the most recent chemical weapons attack, Mr Kerry declared that "only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen - and the Assad regime did do it."
Asked about international support for Mr Obama's threatened military strike, Mr Kerry said the Arab League has offered to pay the cost of any US military action. He was not specific but said the offers have been "quite significant, very significant".
Few, if any, members of Congress dispute the Obama administration's claim that Mr Assad was responsible for the attack, and lawmakers in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.
But even supporters of military action urged Mr Obama to do more to sell his plans to an American public that is highly sceptical after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republican Representative Ed Royce said that while it would be important to deter the use of chemical weapons by Mr Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the US would do if Mr Assad retaliated.
"The administration's Syria policy doesn't build confidence," he said.
In a letter to her rank and file, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she had received suggestions for legislation in the House "to add language to prevent boots on the ground, to tie the authorisation more closely to the use of chemical weapons and to address concerns about an open-ended timetable".
An Associated Press survey of lawmakers indicated many were withholding judgment on legislation.
In the Senate, 17 said they support or are leaning in favour of giving Mr Obama the authority he seeks, with 14 opposed or leaning against.
The other 69 were undecided or their views were not known.
Mr Obama is expected to find little support for action on his overseas trip. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has warned that any "punitive" strike on Syria would be illegal without a sound case for self-defence or the approval of the Security Council, where Syria ally Russia has used its veto power to block action against Mr Assad's regime.
A UN inspection team said on Wednesday it was speeding up its analysis of tissue and soil samples it collected in Syria last week and hopes to have it done in two or three weeks.