US senators say details needed on Syria strategy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Republican foreign policy hawks said Monday that President Barack Obama needs to make a strong case for attacking Bashar Assad’s Syria if he wants to win congressional backing.

At the same time, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said it would be a mistake for Congress to reject Obama’s request.

“We have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences,” now and in future international crises, McCain told reporters outside the White House following a private meeting that he and Graham had with Obama.

Said Graham: “A degrading strike limited in scope could have a beneficial effect to the battlefield momentum. There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning.”

The president announced over the weekend that he’ll seek approval for military strikes against the Assad regime to respond to an attack in the Damascus suburbs last month that the U.S. says included sarin gas and killed at least 1,429 civilians.

That decision sets the stage for the biggest foreign policy vote in Congress since the Iraq war. A vote could come once lawmakers return from summer break, which is scheduled to end Sept. 9.

Before then, Obama must sell the idea to a nation scarred by more than a decade of war.

Meanwhile, McCain and Graham have threatened to vote against Obama’s authorization if the military plan doesn’t seek to shift the momentum of the civil war toward the rebels trying to oust Assad from power.

McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election, has been pressing Obama for over a year to intervene militarily in Syria as the civil war there has widened. He said the administration’s plan now could be more difficult because Assad “is moving his forces around.” Both McCain and Graham questioned the wisdom of the administration publicly signaling in advance its intention to strike.

Obama had said earlier this year that any documented use of chemical weapons by Assad against his own population would amount to a “red line” that the international community would not let him cross.

McCain and Graham, who often speak in unison on foreign policy matters, talked to reporters in the White House driveway after a lengthy meeting with the president.

McCain said he believes lawmakers awaiting a critical vote on Syria “must be assured that this is different from the past two years of neglect” on the part of the administration.

He also said he differs with the administration’s view that there was sufficient time to seek an authorization from Congress.

“I am not satisfied that the timeline is of no consequence and I am astounded when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it doesn’t matter,” McCain said, referring to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

McCain and Graham represent the most aggressive faction in Congress. They have called on Obama to launch comprehensive military strikes with an aim of destroying Assad’s air power, his military command and control, Syria’s ballistic missiles and other military targets while giving opposition forces more arms and training.

But some Republican and Democratic lawmakers don’t want to see military action at all.

On Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify publicly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier Tuesday, other members of the administration’s national security and intelligence teams were to hold a classified, closed-door briefing for all members of Congress. A similar session was held Sunday and more will be held Thursday and Friday.

Kerry will also testify Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Kerry and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will hold a classified briefing Wednesday with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Members of the House Democratic caucus participated in an unclassified conference call Monday with Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, Kerry, Hagel, Clapper and Dempsey.

The White House argues that failure to act against Assad would weaken any deterrence against the use of chemical weapons and could embolden not only Assad but also Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a meeting Tuesday, according to its chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez. The Senate Armed Service Committee will gather a day later, said Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel.

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