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Syria has come under scrutiny after allegations of using chemical weapons against civilians came to light.

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By Kathleen Hennessey

Los Angeles Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Obama arrived here Thursday for a summit of world leaders that will be dominated by discussion of U.S. preparations to attack Syria and the president’s attempts to find some measure of support from the G-20 nations.

obamaputinBut Obama’s Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was not there to greet him at the airport and didn’t send a high-ranking delegate. Instead, Putin met Obama as 33 world leaders checked in to begin two days of official meetings of the Group of 20 major economies, both smiling as they shook hands and chatted for just a few seconds.

Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has expressed skepticism that his government would have launched a reported Aug. 21 chemical attack on the Damascus suburbs.

White House officials said the two leaders had no plans for a meeting, underscoring the dashed hope that Putin’s role as host would bring about a warming in relations and a possible break in the U.S.-Russia impasse over the Syrian civil war.

Putin has been put out with Obama for canceling a one-on-one meeting in Moscow after Putin refused to extradite Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contract employee who leaked details of U.S. surveillance programs.

Obama was making telephone calls to foreign leaders and will use the summit, ostensibly about economic issues, to press his case for a strike against Syria.

“We would not anticipate every member of the G20 agreeing about the way forward in Syria, particularly given the Russian position,”  said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who talked to reporters on Air Force One during the flight to Russia from Sweden.

Obama will, however, “explain our current thinking” to allies and partners and explore what type of “political and diplomatic support they may express for our efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable,” Rhodes said.

Obama’s first meeting at the summit was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who thanked Obama for reaching out to him by telephone to discuss the situation in Syria.


LONDON — British military scientists found traces of sarin gas in clothing and soil samples taken from a patient treated for apparent chemical weapons exposure last month near Damascus, Syria, the British prime minister’s office said Thursday.

Scientists at the Porton Down military laboratory concluded the samples were unlikely to have been faked, and the country is sharing its findings with the United Nations, the prime minister’s office said.

The revelation is the most specific statement by British officials regarding the chemical behind the August 21 attack on a rebel stronghold near Damascus. U.S. officials say more than 1,400 people died, many of them children.

syrian father reunited with sonThe news comes as world leaders gather in St. Petersburg, Russia, for a global economic summit that promises to be overshadowed by controversial efforts by the United States and France to gain support for a military strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of its alleged use of chemical weapons.

The meeting in Russia will pit two leaders with polar opposite views on Syria — U.S. President Barack Obama, who wants to launch limited military strikes against the Syrian regime, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country stands by its longtime ally in the Middle East.

The views of the 18 other countries at the G-20 run the gamut — but could be influenced by whatever happens in St. Petersburg.

For more on this CNN story, click here.

By Paul Richter, Michael A. Memoli

and Kathleen Hennessey

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate took a crucial step Wednesday toward authorizing a punitive strike on Syria but deep reluctance was evident in the House, where lawmakers questioned whether the United States was in danger of being drawn into another Middle East war.

syriaPresident Obama, who announced Saturday that he would seek legislative backing for military action in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, sought to raise the pressure on Congress as well as U.S. allies, warning that their reputations were at stake.

“My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility’s on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility’s on the line,” Obama said during a visit to Stockholm.

Administration officials have repeatedly compared Syrian President Bashar Assad to Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler, and said he needs to be deterred from using chemical weapons again.

On a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution Wednesday to authorize U.S. missile strikes. The committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez , D-N.J., said Congress should “make sure Assad understands he can’t just wait us out, use chemical weapons and face no consequences.”

Several senators from both parties, including opponents of the resolution, predicted the Senate would approve it next week. Yet the Senate’s conflicted views were clear in the vote, which saw Democrats and Republicans on each side. Menendez and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., supported the resolution, while conservative Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted with liberal Tom Udall, D-N.M., against it.

Serious doubts on U.S. military action were aired in a hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and other lawmakers repeatedly asked about the risks of U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, while Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, questioned why the United States should side with Syrian rebels when “radical Islamists” make up most of their forces.

Obama, meanwhile, insisted he was not alone in demanding a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, but was joined by nations that signed treaties banning chemical weapons and by Congress, which ratified them. “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line” he said. “That wasn’t something I just kind of made up.”

The Senate committee’s resolution limits any U.S. mission to 90 days and prohibits the use of ground troops.

The resolution was amended to include language from McCain and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., directing that the strike be used to “change the momentum on the battlefield” away from the Syrian government, which has had the edge for much of this year. The amendment said that it was necessary to pressure Assad to negotiate an end to the war.

Supporters hope that language will capture the votes of centrist lawmakers, as well as hawks. But it could drive away antiwar Democrats and anti-interventionist Republicans in the House, who have been insisting the strikes should not pull the United States deeper into another war.

The difficulty of winning votes in the House — particularly among majority Republicans — was clear at the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced mostly skeptical questions about their confidence in the intelligence about the use of chemical weapons, the nature of the Syrian opposition and the consequences of a strike.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said the administration’s Syria policy “doesn’t build confidence” and that the House would make its own revisions to the authorization resolution.

In one combative exchange, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., questioned why the administration had abandoned its caution on military action in Syria and was “pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly.” The administration, he said, has a credibility issue with the public “due to the unanswered questions surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi,” a reference to the attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in that Libyan city last Sept. 11 that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.

“Let’s draw the proper distinction here,” Kerry sternly responded. “We don’t deserve to drag this into yet another Benghazi discussion when the real issue here is whether or not the Congress is going to stand up for international norms with respect to dictators that have only been broken twice until Assad: Hitler and Saddam Hussein. And if we give license to somebody to continue that, shame on us.”

Strong statements in support of a resolution came from Reps. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., both of whom served in the military. Kinzinger displayed a photo of Syrian children to warn about the risk of further inaction.

“The day the United States does not act is not just the day that Bashar al Assad knows it’s open season for chemical weapons, but also the day Kim Jong Un knows that and, most ominously, the day that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, spins his centrifuges into overdrive,” Cotton said.

In an interview, Kinzinger estimated there was only a 40% chance the House would pass a resolution, “maybe 50 if we’re lucky.”

Given the divide among Republicans, White House lobbying efforts appear to be centered on Democrats. Administration officials held separate phone briefings with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to Democrats seeking “further suggestions or ideas you may have as to what you can support” in a resolution.

Dempsey acknowledged that the risk of escalation can never be ruled out entirely. The military intends to limit U.S. involvement “in time and commitment,” he said. “That’s not to say I discount the risk of escalation, which I can never discount. But we’ve mitigated it as much as possible.”

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the world set a red line against chemical weapons use that he now seeks to apply to Syria, while a Senate committee approved a resolution authorizing the U.S. military attack that he is planning.

By a 10-7 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution that authorizes a limited military response, giving Obama an initial victory in his push to win congressional approval.

The measure now goes to the full Senate for debate next week. The Democratic-led chamber is expected to pass it, but the outcome is less clear in the Republican-led House where top diplomatic and military officials made their case on Wednesday for action.

In Sweden on the first of a three-day overseas trip that includes the G-20 summit in Russia, Obama told reporters that the red line he spoke of last year regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons came from international treaties and past congressional action, rather than something he “made up.”

Obama also insisted he had the authority to order attacks — expected to be cruise missile strikes on Syrian military command targets — even if Congress rejects his request for authorization.

America “recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe,” Obama said. “It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity.”


National & World News

Putin says Russia could support a strike on Syria

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin said he has not ruled out backing a U.S.-led military operation in Syria if the Kremlin gets concrete proof than an alleged chemical attack on civilians was committed by Bashar Assad’s government.

“I don’t rule this out,” Putin said during a televised interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press. “But I want to draw your attention to one absolutely principled issue: in accordance with the current international law, a sanction to use arms against a sovereign state can be given only by the U.N. Security Council.”

PutinThe Obama administration is engaged in a lobbying effort to convince Congress to back a U.S. strike on Syria without U.N. approval. Late Tuesday, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on language authorizing U.S. military action against Syria, while ruling out the commitment of U.S. ground forces and limiting the window for an attack to 90 days. A committee vote could come as early as Wednesday.

Putin’s interview was recorded Tuesday at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow, the official Kremlin website that posted it Wednesday morning said.

For more on this LA Times story, click here.

Syria Secretary of State John Kerry

Sen. John McCain plays poker on his iPhone during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the use of U.S. force in Syria.  (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON (CNN) – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., perhaps the Senate’s most outspoken voice in favor of military action in Syria, was caught playing poker Tuesday at the first congressional hearing about giving the president authority to use force in the war-torn country.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the panel of top Obama officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

While McCain spoke up when it came his turn, a Washington Post photographer snapped a photo of the Arizona Republican trying his luck in the meantime.

The senator later explained his poker habit on CNN.

“As much as I like to always listen with rapt attention constantly (to) remarks of my colleagues over a three and a half period, occasionally I get a little bored and so I resorted,” he said, chuckling. “But the worst thing about it is I lost thousands of dollars in this game.”

He followed up, saying it was only “fake” money.


The tweet posted by Sen. John McCain after the photo of him playing poker during a congressional hearing on Syria hit social media.

By Michael A. Memoli

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday will consider a newly drafted resolution to authorize military force against the Syrian government that specifically rules out any commitment of ground forces and would narrow the time frame for action to no more than 90 days.

john kerry syria1The panel’s top Democrat, Chairman Robert Menendez  of New Jersey, and top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, reached an agreement on revisions to a resolution, which was sent to Congress by the White House on Saturday and was swiftly criticized by lawmakers in both parties as too broad.

The new language calls for the use of force “in a limited and tailored manner” against military targets in Syria for the purpose of responding to the Syrian government’s use of “weapons of mass destruction,” to deter the future use of such weapons and to degrade the nation’s capacity to use them in the future.

Congress’ authorization for the use of force would expire 60 days after it was approved, but the resolution would allow the president to extend the authorization by 30 days if he notified Congress that it was necessary and if Congress does not vote to forbid an extension.

The resolution also calls for the administration to provide within 30 days to key committees an “integrated” strategy toward achieving a settlement to Syria’s civil war.

“With this agreement, we are one step closer to granting the president the authority to act in our national security interest,” Menendez said in a statement.

Corker told CNN on Tuesday that the committee may vote on the revised proposal Wednesday.

Separately, two House Democrats offered their own revised resolution that would make similar changes.

Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who worked with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to draft the proposal, said the goal was to reflect the narrow parameters for military action that Obama has set out.

“If we’re going to pass something that allows us to meet the targeted, limited goals the president has set, the language has to be restrained and refined,” Connolly said in an interview. “This isn’t Congress restraining the president. It’s Congress codifying the words of the president himself.”

Obama said Tuesday that he would welcome changes to the initial resolution, “so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future.”

The Obama administration, calling for punitive missile strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, says that Assad’s forces used nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 Syrians, including at least 426 children, in attacks on targets just outside Damascus.

National & World News

House leaders back Obama on Syria

WASHINGTON — The leaders of both parties in the House of Representatives emerged from a White House meeting Tuesday to support President Barack Obama’s call for American strikes against government forces in Syria’s civil war.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that only the United States has “the capability and capacity” to respond to what Washington says was a poison gas attack by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act. It’s pretty clear to me that the United Nations is unable to take action; NATO, not likely to take action,” Boehner said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added that Washington must respond to actions “outside the circle of civilized human behavior.”

“Humanity drew a line decades ago that I think if we ignore, we do so to the peril of many other people who could suffer,” said Pelosi, D-California.

But in a written statement later, Boehner said it is up to Obama “to make his case to the American people and their elected representatives” — including securing support from individual members.

boehner“All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House,” the speaker said.

The United States, along with NATO and several other countries, blames al-Assad’s forces for a chemical weapons attack that’s believed to have killed more than 1,000 people — including, Obama said Tuesday, more than 400 children.

Syria denies the accusations and accuses rebel groups of using chemical weapons, while the rebels blame government troops. The United States and several of its allies say the rebels don’t have the capability to launch a large-scale chemical attack like the one seen outside Damascus on August 21.

For more on this CNN story, click here.

WASHINGTON — The leaders of both parties in the House of Representatives emerged from a White House meeting to endorse U.S. military action against Syria, with House Speaker John Boehner saying only the United States has the “the capability and capacity” to respond to the use of chemical weapons. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added that Washington must respond to actions “outside the circle of civilized human behavior.”

[Original story published at 11:35 a.m. ET]

(CNN) — Working to persuade Congress to support a U.S. attack on Syria, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday that the military plan would deliver important results while keeping the United States out of a larger war.

“This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan,” Obama told reporters before a meeting with lawmakers.

“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message — not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms — that there are consequences.”

obamaThe United States, along with NATO and several other countries, blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a chemical weapons attack that’s believed to have killed more than 1,000 people — including, Obama said Tuesday, more than 400 children.

“This norm against using chemical weapons — that 98 percent of the world agrees to — is there for a reason, because we recognize that there are certain weapons that, when used, can not only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors, can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey,” Obama said.

Obama said failing to punish Syria would send “a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much,” he added.

For more on this CNN story, click here.