A group of Syrian Americans rally in favour of proposed US military action against the Bashar Al Assad regime, outside the US Capitol in Washington, yesterday.
WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama ramped up an intensive lobbying blitz yesterday to convince a sceptical Congress to support US military strikes against Syria, even as lawmakers criticised the administration’s approach and proposed alternative resolutions.
Obama planned six television interviews, and was due to visit the Capitol today to speak directly to lawmakers before making a nationally televised address from the White House in the evening.
The intensifying public offensive comes ahead of a crucial Senate test vote tomorrow whether to authorise military action in Syria, in response to last month’s chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians.
Some members of Congress say Obama has lost support for a strike over the last week. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a supporter of strikes, said yesterday that Obama had “fumbled” the message on Syria and faced a critical moment.
“Mr President, lay out the case. It’s an important case for the future national security of this country. You’re right on your decision, now show Americans why you believe it’s right,” Rogers said on MSNBC. “And when he does that, I think we’re going to get votes.”
Lawmakers from both parties worry even limited strikes could lead to another prolonged US military commitment in the Middle East and spark a broader conflict.
A poll showed yesterday that the American public strongly opposes a US military intervention in Syria, despite a majority believing that President Bashar Al Assad’s regime gassed its own people.
Almost six in 10 of the 1,022 adults questioned -- 59 percent — said Congress should not pass a resolution authorising even limited military action against Syria, a CNN/ORC International poll found. More than seven in 10 said any such strike would not achieve significant US goals or serve US national interests.
And even if Congress authorises military action against Syria, a 55-percent majority would still oppose air strikes against Syrian military targets. Without congressional support, the opponents increased to 71 percent of respondents.
However, most of those questioned -- 57 percent — said their representative’s vote in Congress would not make a difference in how they voted in upcoming 2014 mid-term elections. The mid-term polls are usually dominated by domestic issues. The CNN poll had a sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
A separate poll of lawmakers by USA Today found that Obama faces a daunting task on Capitol Hill. Only a small fraction of the 533 US lawmakers — just 22 senators and 22 representatives — said they will support the use of military force against the Assad regime. Overall, 19 senators and 130 members of the House of Representatives said they will oppose a resolution authorising military action. But a broad majority of lawmakers in both houses of Congress said they remained undecided.
Even among Obama’s fellow Democrats, lawmakers said they were as likely to vote for as against the measure supporting military action — with 28 voicing support and 28 saying they are against such a resolution.
A Washington Post count of support on the Hill found 25 senators were in favour, 17 opposed, 10 leaning no and 50 undecided, while in the House, 25 representatives were in favour, 111 against, 116 leaning no and 181 undecided.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly passed a resolution last week that prohibited the insertion of US ground combat troops in Syria and limited the intervention to a maximum of 90 days. But with the hunt on for more votes, other alternatives were being explored.
Representative Chris van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said he was writing a resolution with Democrat Gerald Connolly of Virginia that would be more narrow than the Senate resolution. He said the resolution would “make it absolutely clear that the only purpose of military action is to deter Assad from future use of chemical weapons”.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said she was working with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia on an alternative that would give the Assad government 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban and begin the process of turning over its weapons. “During this time, the US would work to build international support and create a global response on the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” Heitkamp said.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said the administration had been open to working with Congress on aspects of the authorising resolution but lawmakers needed “to act with a sense of urgency”. “The votes will be there to act in the defence of the national security interests of the United States,” Rhodes said on MSNBC, adding the videos of suffering victims of the chemical attacks that were distributed to lawmakers would help sway them.