WASHINGTON – 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 approval.
A resolution backing the use of force against President Bashar Assad’s government cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote after it was stiffened at the last minute to include a pledge of support for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. It would rule out U.S. 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, which is also reviewing Obama’s request, although its timetable is even less certain.
The Obama administration blames a chemical weapons attack that took place Aug. 21 on Assad’s government and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower. The Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple Assad were to blame.
The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated missile strike against Syria to ask lawmakers to unite behind such a plan.
Obama was in Sweden after a day of diplomacy when the vote occurred. At a news conference earlier in Stockholm, he said, “I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security.”
The challenges he faces in regards to Syria came into stark relief, however, when Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said his small nation could not support a unilateral response.
“At what point do we say we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity?” Obama said at a news conference in the Swedish capital after talks with Reinfeldt. “I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly . . . the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.”
Obama said responsibility fell upon Congress and the world to retaliate against the Syrian regime for its “horrific” use of chemical weapons.
“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama said. “The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.”
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syria poses no threat to the United States. He also said he is skeptical of U.S. intelligence, going so far as to accuse U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of lying in his testimony this week to Congress.
“It ought to be convincing,” the Russian leader said. “It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by the special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that.
Putin also said he finds it unlikely that Assad would risk international repercussions by using long-banned weapons to kill men, women and children.
At a meeting of the presidential human rights council in Moscow on Wednesday, he accused the U.S. Senate of “legitimizing aggression.”
Russia has so far blocked proposals for U.N. Security Council action against Syria. In the interview, Putin warned the United States against launching a unilateral strike against Syria and said Russia is developing a plan of action in case it does so without U.N. approval, although he declined to go into specifics.
Yet he also said that if the U.S. and its allies could provide sufficient evidence Assad’s forces carried out the sarin attack, Russia would consider allowing U.N. action against Syria. He also said Moscow has frozen the shipment of certain parts for S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that it had agreed to sell to Assad’s regime.