WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama won the backing of two top Republicans in Congress in his call for limited US strikes on Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Speaking after the United Nations said 2 million Syrians had fled a conflict that posed the greatest threat to world peace since the Vietnam war, Obama said the United States also has a broader plan to help rebels defeat Assad’s forces.
In remarks that appeared to question the legality of US plans to strike Syria without UN backing, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the use of force is only legal when it is in self-defence or with UN Security Council authorisation.
He said that if UN inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Security Council, which has long been deadlocked on the 2-1/2-year Syrian civil war, should overcome its differences and take action.
Having startled friends and foes alike in the Middle East by delaying a punitive attack on Assad until Congress reconvenes and agrees, Obama met congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday to urge a prompt decision and assure them it did not mean another long war like Iraq or Afghanistan.
In a boost for Obama, John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor both pledged their support for military action after the meeting.
Votes are expected to be held in the US Senate and House next week, with the Republican-led House presenting the tougher challenge for Obama.
The president said strikes aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons would hurt Assad’s forces while other US action would bolster his opponents - though the White House has insisted it is not seeking “regime change” that might end Syria’s civil war.
“What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad’s capabilities,” Obama said. “At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.”
Assad denies deploying poison gas that killed hundreds of civilians last month. His enemies were dismayed by Obama’s decision on Saturday to seek congressional approval before action that he says is necessary to penalise chemical warfare.
The Syrian opposition, which on Tuesday said a forensic scientist had defected to the rebel side bringing evidence of Assad forces’ use of sarin gas in March, has appealed to Western allies to send them weapons and use their air power to end a war that has killed more than 100,000 and made millions homeless.
The presence in rebel ranks of Islamist militants, some of them close to Al-Qaeda, has made Western leaders wary, while at the same time the undoubted - and apparently accelerating - human cost of the conflict has brought pressure to intervene.
The chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee said on Tuesday he was confident after talking with Obama that the United States would step up its support for “vetted” elements of the Syrian opposition.
Senator Carl Levin said he urged the president, a fellow Democrat, to arm the Syrian rebels a day after two influential Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, sought similar assurances from Obama. Levin said he told the White House that the United States should provide rebels with arms such as anti-tank weapons “which cannot be turned on us.”
While Obama’s wait for Congress to return from its summer recess seems to rule out Western military action this week, Israeli forces training in the Mediterranean with the US navy set nerves on edge in Damascus on Tuesday with a missile test that triggered an alert from Assad’s ally Russia.
When Moscow raised the alarm on Tuesday morning that its forces had detected the launch of two ballistic “objects” in the Mediterranean, thoughts of a surprise strike on Syria pushed oil prices higher on world markets and must have put the troops operating Syria’s Russian-equipped air defence system on alert.
A Syrian security official later told a Lebanese television channel that its early warning radar had picked up no threats.
Clarification came only later when the Israeli Defence Ministry said that its troops had - at the time of the Russian alert - fired a missile that is used as a target for an anti-missile defence system during an exercise with US forces.
The jitters reflected a nervousness both within Syria and further afield since Western leaders pledged retribution for the use of chemical weapons.
Britain has dropped out of planning for attacks since its parliament rejected a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron but France, western Europe’s other main military power, is still coordinating possible action with the Pentagon.
President Francois Hollande has resisted opposition calls to submit any decision to wage war to parliament. His government presented lawmakers on Monday with what it said was evidence of Assad’s responsibility for a “massive and coordinated” chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
However, Hollande said on Tuesday that there would be no French action if the US Congress fails to back Obama.