President Gains McCain’s Backing on Syria Attack
Published: September 2, 2013
WASHINGTON — The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.
In an hourlong meeting at the White House, said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.
There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said, that any attack on Syria should be to “degrade” the Syrian government’s delivery systems. Such a strike could include aircraft, artillery and the kind of rockets that the Obama administration says the forces of President Bashar al-Assad used to carry out an Aug. 21 sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 people.
The senators said they planned to meet with Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, to discuss the strategy in greater depth.
“It is all in the details, but I left the meeting feeling better than I felt before about what happens the day after and that the purpose of the attack is going to be a little more robust than I thought,” Mr. Graham said in an interview.
But Mr. McCain said in an interview that Mr. Obama did not say specifically what weapons might be provided to the opposition or discuss in detail what Syrian targets might be attacked.
“There was no concrete agreement, ‘O.K., we got a deal,’ ” Mr. McCain said. “Like a lot of things, the devil is in the details.”
In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, he called the meeting “encouraging,” urged lawmakers to support Mr. Obama in his plan for military action in Syria and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the United States and its credibility in the world. Mr. McCain said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.”
Although the words from Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham were a positive development for Mr. Obama and a critical part of the administration’s lobbying blitz on Syria on Monday, the White House still faces a tough fight in Congress. Many lawmakers entirely oppose a strike, and others favor a resolution that would provide for more limited military action than what is in a draft resolution that the White House has sent to Capitol Hill. The conflict of opinion underscores Mr. Obama’s challenge in winning votes in the House and Senate next week and avoiding personal defeat.
A Labor Day conference call with five of Mr. Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 lawmakers of both parties attended a classified briefing on Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from a Congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?’ ” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview after the Monday conference call.
The push in Washington came as reaction continued around the world to the president’s abrupt decision over the weekend to change course and postpone a military strike to seek authorization from Congress first.
In France, the only nation to offer vigorous support for an American attack, there were rising calls for a parliamentary vote like the one last week in Britain, where lawmakers jolted the White House with a rejection of a British military attack. But the French government, in an effort to bolster its case, released a declassified summary of French intelligence that it said ties Mr. Assad’s government to the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21.
In Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov dismissed as unconvincing the evidence presented by Mr. Kerry of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. “We were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete, neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals,” Mr. Lavrov said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
First Syria rebels armed and trained by CIA ‘on way to battlefield’
The first cell of Syrian rebels trained and armed by the CIA is making its way to the battlefield, President Barack Obama has reportedly told senators.
During a meeting at the White House, the president assured Senator John McCain that after months of delay the US was meeting its commitment to back moderate elements of the opposition.
Mr Obama said that a 50-man cell, believed to have been trained by US special forces in Jordan, was making its way across the border into Syria, according to the New York Times.
The deployment of the rebel unit seems to be the first tangible measure of support since Mr Obama announced in June that the US would begin providing the opposition with small arms.
Congressional opposition delayed the plan for several weeks and rebel commanders publicly complained the US was still doing nothing to match the Russian-made firepower of the Assad regime.
Mr McCain has been a chief critic of the White House’s reluctance to become involved in Syria and has long demanded that Mr Obama provide the rebels with arms needed to overthrow the regime.
Downing Street does not rule out arming the Syrian rebels
Downing Street was forced on Tuesday night to deny that the Government could still send weapons to the Syrian rebels, despite MPs last week failing to back the possibility of military action in the country.
David Cameron on Tuesday insisted that he will not return to the Commons and ask MPs to again vote on military intervention in Syria.
Despite stressing that “no decision has been taken”, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman on Tuesday afternoon failed to exclude the option of instead sending arms to the Syrian opposition.
It came after Barack Obama, the US President, said that he wants to “upgrade the capabilities” of the forces opposing Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
“On the question of arming the rebels… the position on that is entirely unchanged,” Mr Cameron’s spokesman said. “No decision has been taken.”
However, just hours later Downing Street was forced to clarify its position, insisting that arming the rebels is now “not on the cards”.
The mixed messages will be seen as further evidence of the disarray in Downing Street following Mr Cameron’s humiliating Commons defeat last week at the hands of Tory rebels.
Dozens of Tory MPs are firmly opposed to the prospect of arming the rebels and any attempt to do so would prove divisive.
Mr Cameron has continued to come under pressure from senior Conservatives who do not want him to rule out returning to the Commons if the situation in Syria changes dramatically.