Obama plunges into high-stakes week on Syria

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President Barack Obama gestures while speaking during a “Civil Society Roundtable” with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia. AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a high-stakes week of trying to convince a skeptical Congress and a war-weary American public to back a military strike against Syria.

His administration came under pressure Saturday from European officials to delay possible action until U.N. inspectors report their findings about an Aug. 21 chemical attack that Obama blames on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Yet European Union foreign ministers meeting in Lithuania with Secretary of State John Kerry did endorse a “clear and strong response” to an attack they said strongly points to Assad’s government. Kerry welcomed the “strong statement about the need for accountability,” although the EU did not specify what an appropriate response would be.

The days ahead represent one of the most intense periods of outreach for a president not known for investing heavily in consultations with Congress.

Just back from a European trip where he lobbied for support, Obama is working to salvage a policy whose fate he’s placed in lawmakers’ hands.

His administration’s lobbying campaign culminates Tuesday, the evening before a critical vote is expected in the Senate. Obama will address the nation from the White House to make his case for military action.

“Over 1,400 people were gassed. Over 400 of them were children,” Obama said Friday at the close of a global summit in Russia.

“This is not something we’ve fabricated. This is not something that we are using as an excuse for military action,” he said. “I was elected to end wars, and not start them.”

A passionate debate in Congress, which returns to work Monday after its summer break, already is under way.

On Wednesday, the first showdown Senate vote is likely over a resolution authorizing the “limited and specified use” of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. A final vote in the 100-member chamber is expected at week’s end.

A vote in the House of Representatives is likely the week of Sept. 16.

A representative from the Syrian National Coalition, spokesman Khalid Saleh, was coming to Washington to meet with government officials and lawmakers.

Obama enters the fray having made some progress in his quest to win foreign support for a strike punishing Assad for a chemical attack the U.S. blames on his forces.

Yet Obama has been unable to secure the U.N. backing that many nations say is needed to legitimize any strike.

The president returned from Europe with a joint statement from nations backing “a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules and conscience.”

His administration said the statement, signed by France, Saudi Arabia, Japan and others at the close of the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, was a clear endorsement for the limited military action the U.S. has been publicly contemplating for weeks.

Absent from the list was Russian President Vladimir Putin, a stalwart Assad ally and staunch opponent of a U.S. strike.

Obama and many U.S. allies blame Assad for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 outside Damascus in areas contested or controlled by rebels fighting Assad’s government. The Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels were to blame.

The U.S. citing intelligence reports, says sarin gas was used, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.

European ministers said in their statement Saturday that the available intelligence “seems to indicate strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for these attacks.”

But European Union nations want the U.N. investigation to play out and hoped a preliminary report could be released as soon as possible.

The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported that the U.N. inspectors could submit initial findings from their tests of samples collected in Syria by the end of the coming week.

Obama acknowledged that the U.S. public mostly opposes a strike and that he may not persuade a majority of Americans. But without a martial response, he said, a fundamental global prohibition against chemical weapons use could unravel, emboldening other leaders with such weapons at their disposal and making the world more dangerous for years to come.

“We are the United States of America. We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria,” the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday.

Recent surveys show intense American skepticism about military intervention in Syria, even among those who believe Syria’s government used chemical weapons on its people. A Pew Research Center poll completed last week found 29 percent in favor of a U.S. strike, with 48 percent opposed and 23 percent unsure.

The administration’s lobbying effort including hosting lawmakers at the White House on Friday for classified briefings on evidence about the attack and on Obama’s proposal for a military response.

His new U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, gave a speech at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the White House. Her predecessor at the United Nations, national security adviser Susan Rice, planned to discuss similar themes Monday in an address at the New America Foundation.

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, was preparing to appear on the five major Sunday political talk shows.

McDonough, Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Obama were calling lawmakers to urge them to vote yes. On Sunday night, Biden was to host a dinner for a group of Senate Republicans.

Another bipartisan, classified briefing for Congress was scheduled for Monday, and McDonough planned to meet privately Tuesday with the House Democratic Caucus, whose support could be crucial as Obama faces opposition from House Republicans.

House Speaker John Boehner and the Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have backed Obama’s call for a Syria strike, but it’s unclear how many in either party will join them.

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