Obama admits to deep divisions at home and abroad over Syria strike
Obama admits to strong disagreements at home and abroad over call for military action in Syria as he prepares to address the American people
US President Barack Obama yesterday acknowledged deep divisions at home and abroad over his call for military action in Syria - and conceded the possibility he will fail to sway the American public.
He refused to say whether he would act without passage of congressional authorisation for a strike in response to the use of chemical weapons.
Setting the stage for an intense week of lobbying in Washington over the strike resolution, Obama said he planned to make his case to the American people in a speech on Tuesday night.
He said the use of weapons of mass destruction is a long-term threat to the US and the world, and the US had the ability to respond with air strikes without risking troops on the ground.
"It's conceivable that at the end of the day I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," Obama acknowledged. "And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide."
But he expressed confidence the American people and lawmakers, weary after long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would listen.
"I trust my constituents want me to offer my best judgment. That's why they elected me. That's why they re-elected me," he said.
Although surveys showed a significant number of House Republicans and Democrats opposed to military action or leaning against it, officials in the leadership insisted it was premature to say the resolution could not be approved. At this stage, just a third of the House and Senate have participated in classified briefings and Obama is still reaching out to lawmakers with more briefings planned.
Final passage rests on significant votes from House Republicans and Democrats, and the administration is struggling to reach those numbers. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who is backing authorisation, said Obama needs to make a convincing case to the public on Tuesday.
Despite this, Washington prepared the ground for possible strikes, evacuating non-essential embassy staff from Beirut and urging Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon as well as southern Turkey. Obama has also directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria.
The move is in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to deploy chemical weapons while the US debate over strikes continues.
Obama, officials said, was now determined to put more emphasis on the "degrade" part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria - to "deter and degrade" Assad's ability to use chemical weapons.
That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves - risking a potential catastrophe - but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said on Thursday.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals - air defences, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons.
Most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favour of a military response are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilise the Assad government.
The New York Times, Associated Press