WASHINGTON — At home and abroad, the Obama administration redoubled its campaign Sunday to build support for military action against Syria, saying it had won the backing of Saudi Arabia for a strike while still laboring to persuade a deeply reluctant Congress.
By MARK LANDLER
The New York Times
But Syrias president, Bashar Assad, thrust himself into the debate as well, rejecting President Barack Obamas claim that his forces used chemical weapons on civilians outside Damascus last month.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, scheduled to be broadcast today, Assad warned that if Syria was attacked, it would retaliate.
With Obama scheduled to press his case today in interviews with major television networks, the prospect of a split-screen moment loomed, featuring the two main antagonists in the international debate over how to deal with Syria.
In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told him that Saudi Arabia would support an American-led strike. Qatar also said it would back foreign intervention, though it did not explicitly endorse airstrikes.
Kerry said he was hopeful that additional countries would indicate support for a strong response in coming days.
In Washington, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said the vote in Congress over whether to authorize military force would be closely watched by Iran and Hezbollah as a test of American resolve to respond to a chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces.
The question now for Congress is, Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children? he said on Fox News Sunday.
With Congress returning from a recess Tuesday, the White House is trying to pivot from establishing what happened in the outskirts of Damascus early on Aug. 21 to what the world should do about it. McDonough insisted that there was no longer a debate over intelligence indicating that a horrific chemical weapons attack had taken place.
But the depth of resistance in Congress was again on display Sunday, with lawmakers from both parties appearing on television news programs to voice opposition to a strike, either because they viewed it as a slippery slope toward another Middle East war or because they worried that it might strengthen Syrian rebels with ties to al-Qaida.
Were being told that there are two choices: do nothing or bomb Syria, Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said on CNNs State of the Union. Clearly there have to be some other choices in between. We ought to explore them.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on NBCs Meet the Press that he could not support military action because once we hit, this is an act of war.
He added, Little wars start big wars, and we have to remember that.
Though the Democratic-controlled Senate is friendlier turf than the Republican-controlled House, the White House is far from assured of victory there, either. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has appealed to skeptical Democrats by urging them to vote yes on a motion to end debate on the resolution, which requires 60 votes and is the first step toward passage.
Reid is telling them they are then free to vote their conscience on final passage, which requires a simple majority of 51.
Among Republicans who spoke out Sunday against military action were Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has steadfastly opposed U.S. engagement in Syria, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who defenders of the president note had advocated a military operation back in June to secure or destroy Syrias chemical weapons stockpiles.
On the ABC News program This Week, Cruz said Obama had not laid out a clear military mission.
I dont think thats the job of our military, to be defending amorphous international norms, he said.
Overseas, the administrations efforts to marshal support appeared to be bearing more fruit. At a news conference in Paris, Kerry said of Saudi Arabia: They have supported the strike, and they support taking action. They believe that its very important to do that.
Qatars foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, said military intervention was justified because foreign supporters of Assad had joined the fight on the side of the Syrian government an allusion to Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar were among the first backers of the rebels who are fighting Assad.
Kerry asserted Saturday that the number of countries prepared to participate militarily was in the double digits. Apart from France, however, he has not identified which might join the U.S. or what their military contribution might be.
Kerrys four-day trip to Europe was initially intended primarily to focus on ways to bolster the Middle East peace negotiations. But with an eye on the congressional debate, he has prodded countries to sign a statement that blames the Syrian government for the chemical weapons attack and calls for a strong international response.
About a dozen nations have signed the statement, which U.S. officials circulated last week during a Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Kerry said he hoped to get more nations to sign before returning to Washington today.
McDonough on Sunday previewed a key argument that Obama will make in a speech to the nation Tuesday.
This is not Iraq or Afghanistan, this is not Libya, this is not an extended air campaign, McDonough said on CNN.
This is something thats targeted, limited and effective so as to underscore that he should not think that he can get away with this again.