WASHINGTON (AP) – Battling stiff resistance in Congress, President Barack Obama conceded Monday night he might lose his fight for congressional support of a military strike against Syria, and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers reject his call to back retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last month.
The president made his comments as a glimmer of a possible diplomatic solution appeared after months of defiance from the Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad in Syria. In a rapid response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cited “international discussions” in unexpectedly postponing a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama’s call for legislation backing a military strike.
In a series of six network interviews planned as part of a furious lobbying campaign in Congress, Obama said statements suggesting that Syria might agree to surrender control of its chemical weapons stockpile were a potentially positive development.
At the same time, he said they were yet another reason for lawmakers to give him the backing he is seeking.
“If we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see,” he said on CNN.
In a separate interview with NBC, the president took the step – unusual for any politician – of conceding he may lose his campaign in Congress for legislation authorizing a military strike. “I wouldn’t say I’m confident” of the outcome, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t decided” on a next step if Congress turns its back, the president told NBC, part of a furious lobbying campaign aimed at winning support from dubious lawmakers as well as a war-weary public.
Legislation approved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week would give Obama a maximum of 90 days to carry out a military attack, and it includes a ban on combat operations on the ground in Syria.
Adding to the uncertainty of the debate in Congress was a flurry of diplomatic activity that offered a potential way of achieving U. S. aims without military action.
Reacting quickly to a comment made by Secretary of State John Kerry in London, Russia called on Damascus to surrender control of its stockpile of chemical weapons and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said he welcomed the proposal.
At the White House, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said the administration will “take a hard look at” the proposal. “We’re going to talk to the Russians about it,” he said noting pointedly that it comes in the context of threatened U.S. military action. “So it’s even more important that we don’t take the pressure off,” he said, urging Congress to give Obama the authority he seeks.
Other officials sought to tamp down any suggestion that Kerry was making an orchestrated effort with Russia to avoid the strikes.