McCain, Graham express optimism on Obama Syria plan

By Paul Singer and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

President Obama's bid to get congressional support to use militaryforce in Syria received a boost Monday as Republican Sens. John McCainand Lindsey Graham said they have more confidence the White House isdeveloping a better strategy for dealing with Syria.

McCain andGraham are key votes Obama will need to win Senate approval for theUnited States to launch missile strikes against Syria in response to anAug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people.

Obamasaid Saturday he had concluded the United States should launch anattack in response to the attack, but he said he wants approval firstfrom Congress.

McCain and Graham have jointly expressed concernsthat a military strike should be part of a broader strategy in Syria,not simply a random attack to punish the regime.

After meetingwith Obama Monday, they both said they believed the White House isdeveloping a strategy that would weaken the regime of President BasharAssad and boost Syrian opposition forces - though they said Obama hasmore work to do to explain this plan.

"We still have significantconcerns," McCain said, "but we believe there is in formulation astrategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and todegrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we hadnot had that indication."

McCain of Arizona repeatedly said acongressional vote rejecting the use of military force would be"catastrophic" to U.S interests and would destroy the credibility of thenation in the eyes of both allies and adversaries. Graham of SouthCarolina said, "If we don't get Syria right, Iran is surely going totake the signals that we don't care about their nuclear program. ... Ifwe lost a vote in Congress dealing with the chemical weapons being usedin Syria, what effect would that have on Iran and their nuclearprogram?"

Both senators criticized the administration for lacking not having a clearer strategy in Syria before now.

In Syria Monday, Assad told a journalist with the French newspaper Le Figaro that any attack risked opening a wider war in the region.

Syriahas challenged the United States and France to provide proof to supporttheir allegations that Damascus has used chemical weapons, Assad said,but that the leaders of both countries "have been incapable of doingthat, including before their own peoples."

McCain and Graham,however, said they had no doubts about Syria's use of chemical weapons.Their meeting Monday was part of a major lobbying push by the WhiteHouse.

House Democrats were briefed on a conference call byNational Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry,Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence JamesClapper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.

Kerry said Sunday the administration has more proof Syrian troops used the nerve agent sarin in the Aug. 21 attack.

Tuesdaywill be another busy day of lobbying for the White House. Obama willmeet with chairs and ranking members from key national securitycommittees, including the Senate Armed Services Committee, SenateForeign Relations Committee, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Permanent Select Committee onIntelligence and House Armed Services Committee.

The SenateForeign Relations Committee will conduct a hearing on the issue Tuesdayafternoon in which Hagel, Kerry and Dempsey are likely to testify.


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