Boehner, Pelosi and Cantor back Obama
The House leadership on both sides has publicly positioned itself behind the president.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and speaker John Boehner, a Republican, have both just delivered statements outside the White House calling for support for military strikes in Syria.
House majority leader Eric Cantor subsequently released a statement of support.
Speaking in separate appearances after a meeting with the president, Pelosi and Boehner said they would urge their caucuses to support Obama.
“The use of these weapons have to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad,” Boehner said.
Pelosi said the case for taking action is strong.
“I feel pretty confident… that we have a good conversation to have with our members,” she said.
Pelosi said did not think congressional authorization “is necessary” for the president to use force in Syria, citing the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbian forces in Kosovo.
I’ll remind you that in 1999, President Clinton brought us all together to talk about going into the Balkans,” Pelosi said. “The vote was 213-213… and that was when the planes were really ready to go… so I don’t think that the congressional authorization is necessary.
“I do think it’s a good thing and I hope we can achieve it.”
Pelosi said the 21 August chemical attack in Syria was “outside the circle of civilized behavior.”
Cantor said America “has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria…”
“I intend to vote to provide the President of the United States the option to use military force in Syria,” Cantor’s statement said.
House speaker John Boehner has announced his backing for a Syria war resolution, reporters on Capitol Hill are saying.
On Twitter, Senator John McCain applauded Boehner’s stance.
It appears the president may be getting congressional leaders on his side. Now as long as the rank and file agrees to march…
This is Tom McCarthy in New York taking over the blog from my colleagues in London.
The consequence will be dire if Obama is pushed into a military campaign in Syria, warns the Guardian’s foreign affairs columnist Simon Tisdall.
Writing on Comment is Free, he says:
Nothing would better serve al-Qaida’s warped agenda. Nothing would more quickly increase the threat to every airport or subway train. Nothing would more effectively set at odds and divide, again, the western and Muslim worlds. For as they have proved before, the American rightwingers now pushing Obama towards open-ended warfare have few equals as recruiting sergeants for terror.
Obama: ‘This is not Iraq’
More from that Obama press conference, where the president was at pains to draw a distinction with Iraq, writes Tom McCarthy.
Obama said: “I’ve made the decision that America should take action. But I also believe that we will be much stronger… if we take action together.”
Appealing to Congress to back military action, Obama added:
“This gives us an opportunity not only to present the evidence… as to why we have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them.
“But also why it’s so important that [the Assad regime] be held accountable.
“There are certain weapons that, when used, can not only.. result in grotesque deaths, but also can end up getting transmitted to non-state actors…
Obama said weapons proliferation could pose a risk to “allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey.”
Obama said it was dangerous to let international norms against chemical weapons use be violated.
Not to act would indicate “that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much,” he said.
“This is the key point that I want to emphasize to the America people,” Obama said.
The military plan.. is proportionate, it is limited, it does not mean boots on the ground. This is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited, proportionate step that will send a clear message to Assad, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing international norms…
‘There are consequences.’
Obama said military action “also fits into a broader strategy we have” to weaken Assad and “strengthen the opposition,” in an effort to create conditions for “peace and stability in the region.”
‘Defector’ press conference cancelled
The Syrian opposition has cancelled that planned press conference with chemical weapons official who it claimed was ready to announce his defection.
Khalid Saleh, spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said Abdel Tawwab Shahrou could not attend the event.
“Due to security concerns he was not able to be with us today. However we hope to hold a press conference with him in the very near future.”
He did not elaborate.
Saleh insisted that Shahrou was “aware of many of the crimes committed by the Assad regime in the province of Aleppo”.
Cameron rules out second vote
David Cameron has reiterated that MPs would not be asked to vote again on a military strike in Syria.
Speaking on a visit to a school in Birmingham, the prime minister said:
I think Parliament spoke very clearly and it is important to respect the view of Parliament so I am not planning to return to Parliament to ask again about British military action.
“Now that does not mean we do nothing on Syria. We are already the second largest aid donor in delivering the humanitarian aid that is so needed, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries like Jordan and Turkey. We’ll go on doing that. We will help lead the world in that effort and make further efforts at the G20 to make sure that vital aid gets through.
President Obama deflected a question Tuesday about whether he would act without Congress to launch military strikes on Syria, saying he believes Congress will back him, writes Tom McCarthy.
“I would not be going to Congress if I wasn’t serious about consultation, and I believe that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission, then we will be effective,” Obama said before a briefing with congressional leaders about the Syria situation.
Obama described the mission as twofold: to “send a message to Assad,” and to “[degrade] his ability to use chemical weapons” now and in the future.
“As long as the authorization does that, I’m confident we’ll be able” to reach an agreement, Obama said.
US secretary of state John Kerry on Sunday said the president has the “right” to strike Syria with or without congressional backing.
Obama plans more than punitive strike
Barack Obama has confirmed that he plans to go beyond punitive strikes against the Assad regime in response to last month’s chemical weapons attack on eastern Damascus.
Speaking ahead of a meeting Congressional leaders, Obama said US military action would degrade Assad ability to use chemical weapons.
He insisted that US has a broader strategy to step up help to the Syrian opposition.
He told reporters:
What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad’s capabilities at the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.
German intelligence says Assad regime behind sarin attack
A telephone call intercepted by German intelligence officers provides further evidence of a sarin attack by the Assad regime on 21 August, according to the German news site Spiegel Online.
It cited a secret briefing to lawmakers by Gerhard Schindler head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst.
Although the samples collected on site last week by United Nations weapons inspectors are still being analyzed, the BND is relatively certain that the chemical agent in question in sarin. Schindler noted that the BND intercepted a telephone call in which a doctor precisely described several of the symptoms patients suffered from — and they were all consistent with exposure to sarin. The UN samples will likely offer the final proof, but analysis could take several more weeks.
Syrian Electronic Army
On Monday a website for the US Marines became the latest victim of the pro-Assad hacking group the Syrian Electronic Army.
The Guardian’s data blog has compiled an interactive timeline of the group’s cyber attacks.
A spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition has confirmed that chemical weapons official from Aleppo is due to announce his defection to the opposition.
She said Abdel Tawwab Shahrou was head of forensics in Aleppo and has the details of a disputed chemical attack on the Khan al-Assal area in March.
The avid Syria blogger Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, points to reports that Shahrou was reported to have been kidnapped by insurgents two weeks ago.
Frederic Hoff, one of the Obama administration’s former senior advisers on Syria, is dismayed at the president’s decision to seek Congressional approval for military strikes.
Hoff, who left the administration a year ago, said the US should have a plan for sustained strikes against the Assad regime.
Writing for the Atlantic Council, Hoff says:
The objective of sustained military strikes should be to destroy or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to bring to bear massed fires, chemical or conventional, on Syrian population centers. This would mean concentrating—for several days, if necessary—on artillery, aircraft (along with airfields), and missiles. Ideally the administration would have had a plan to execute within seventy-two hours of the August 21 outrage, one that would have put the regime out of the business of mass murder. Yet, everything that has happened since August 21 suggests that Assad’s action was a big surprise; that there was no executable plan in place. This is a failure that can be sorted out over time by congressional inquiries. Now, the challenge for the Pentagon is constantly to update targeting while the regime tries to move and hide assets.
Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander MP, is still pressing for Syria to be discussed as part of formal agenda at the G20 summit.
Responding to Hague’s comments in the Commons, Alexander said:
It is deeply disappointing that the foreign secretary has apparently accepted that world leaders won’t even get to discuss Syria collectively at the G20 summit in Russia this week.
As the leaders of the world’s twenty biggest economies meet this week, the UK must request that the Syrian crisis is top of the agenda, not just discussed on the margins of the meeting.
Sadly, the foreign secretary today appeared to rule out the UK pressing for UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to be invited to the G20 summit, and for a Syria Contact Group to be created as a matter of urgency.
The scale of the suffering in Syria demands a more active diplomatic engagement ahead of this week’s summit.
More detail on the Israeli-US missile test via AP:
The Israeli Defence ministry said the test was performed together with the US Defense Department. A Sparrow missile was launched successfully at 9:15 a.m. and followed its planned trajectory.
The Arrow missile defense system successful detected and tracked the target, the ministry said. It was not clear from the statement if the Sparrow was shot down.
The Sparrow is a medium-range guided missile that can be launched either from the surface or the air to hit aerial targets, according to the manufacturer.
A spokesman for Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu confirmed the report.
ITV’s Bill Neely, who is currently in Damascus, speculates on the purpose of the test:
Here’s a summary of the latest developments so far today:
• Israel has confirmed that it carried out a joint test with the US of a missile defence system in the Mediterranean. The US Navy said no missiles were fired from its ships. Earlier Russia prompted alarm after its radar detected objects fired into the sea.
• A senior figure in Syria’s chemical warfare services in Aleppo is set to announce his defection, according to the Syrian opposition. He was named as Abdel Tawwab Shahrou, according to unconfirmed reports.
• William Hague has insisted that Britain is committed to a diplomatic solution in Syria in the wake of last week’s parliamentary vote against military intervention. Speaking in the House of Commons he said: “There is still an overwhelming case for the holding of a peace conference in Geneva and we will work towards that.”
• Former US senior commander General Jack Keane claims the Obama administration is planning to go beyond anticipated punitive strikes against the Assad regime. Based on a conversation with the Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham after they were briefed by Barack Obama, Keane said: “He is going to degrade Assad’s military capacity and he is going to assist and upgrade the opposition forces with training assistance.”
• The number of Syrians forced to flee the country has doubled in just six months to 2 million, according to the UN. Announcing the figures, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, said Syria had become “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
• Vladimir Putin is to be confronted at the G20 summit of world leaders in St Petersburg this week with an array of western intelligence including damning new French evidence directly linking Syrian government forces with a massive and co-ordinated chemical attack on 21 August that led to hundreds of civilian deaths. The Russian president will also be urged to show a new diplomatic flexibility and come closer to accepting that the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, has to stand aside.
Syrian online activist The 47th says the Sky News report is correct and a press conference on the defection is planned for 5pm local time (3pm BST) in Istanbul. He says Abdel Tawwab Shahrou is “head of medical services in Assad’s chemical warfare branch” and also “head of Aleppo forensics”.
‘Defection from Assad’s chemical weapons programme’
Earlier, we referenced chatter about a significant defection from the Assad regime. Sky News has reportedly named the defector as Abdul Tawab Shahrour and says he has evidence about use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Khan al-Assal, near the northern city of Aleppo. Each side accused the other of using chemical weapons against residents of Khan al-Assal in March.
US plans to ‘degrade’ Assad’s capacity
A former US senior commander claims the Obama administration is planning to go beyond anticipated punitive strikes against the Assad regime
General Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the US army told the BBC that he understood President Obama was planning a more substantial intervention in Syria than had previously been believed, with increased support for the opposition forces, including training from US troops.
Keane spoke to the Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham after they were briefed by Obama.
Keane told the Today Programme:
What he won’t do is topple the regime. There’s a distinction here.
What he has told the two senators is that he also intends to assist the opposition forces, so he is going to degrade Assad’s military capacity and he is going to assist and upgrade the opposition forces with training assistance.
Keane said any training would probably be done in neighbouring Jordan rather than in Syria itself.
The US Navy said it didn’t fire missiles as part of joint tests announced by the Israelis.
Reuters quotes a US Navy spokesman as saying: “No missiles were fired from US ships in the Mediterranean,” said the spokesman.
He had no further comment on the reported missile activity, it added. In other words he didn’t deny that the US was involved in missiles test with Israel.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander pressed Hague to insist that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, is involved in the main G20 summit in St Petersburg later this week.
Hague suggested Brahimi would only be involved in bilateral talks on the sidelines of the summit.
Hague replied: “Our problem is not being unable to discuss these things in the international community. It is being unable to be agree how to bring about a transitional government in Syria … by mutual consent. We have had two and half years of discussion on this. It is agreement that is allusive not a format for discussion.”
William Hague insists that Britain is still committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.
Answering Commons questions Hague said: “There is a still an overwhelming case for a peace conference in Geneva and we will continue to work towards that.”
Hague said Britain was prepared to enter talks with Syria’s ally Iran, but that Iran must show a commitment to a constructive settlement.
A few more details on the Israeli/US missile test, via Reuters.
Israel said it carried out a test of a missile, used as a target in a US funded anti-missile system, in the Mediterranean on Tuesday.
The Israeli Defence Ministry said the test was conducted at 9:15 a.m. (0615 GMT), about the same time that Russia’s state-run RIA news agency reported that Russian radar had detected the launch of two ballistic “objects” in the Mediterranean.
Early Reuters tweeted that the test involved the “anchor” anti-missile system.
Israel confirms missile test
Israel has confirmed that it carried out a joint missile test with the US in the Mediterranean, according to the latest brief update from Reuters.
The Russians appear to have been on to something after all.
In Britain the political fallout from last week’s vote in the Commons to reject military intervention rumbles on.
William Hague is due to answer questions in the House in the next few minutes. Meanwhile his hawkish colleague Michael Gove has suggested he would like to see another vote on the issue, according to my colleague Andrew Sparrow over on the Politics live blog.
Gove reportedly shouted “You’re a disgrace” at MPs who had voted against the government. He was asked whether that was true, and whether he wanted parliament to vote on the matter again. He replied:
“I did become heated last week, that is absolutely right. At the moment that the government lost the vote on the motion, there were Labour MPs cheering as though it were a sort of football match and they had just won.
At the same time on the news, we were hearing about an attack on a school in Syria and the death toll there rising – and the incongruity of Labour MPs celebrating as children had been killed by a ruthless dictator, I am afraid got to me and I did feel incredibly emotional. I do feel emotional about this subject.
The prime minister explained about the vote and that is all I want to say.”
Asked again if he wanted the Commons to revisit the subject, he said: “That is all I want to say.” It seemed fairly clear that he believed the answer should be yes.
Syria didn’t pick up any missiles either, according to a pro-Assad TV station in Lebanon, Reuters reports.
Syria’s early warning radar system did not detect any missiles landing on Syrian territory, according to a Syrian security source quoted by Lebanon’s al-Manar television on Tuesday.
‘Objects’ fell into sea
The “objects” detected by Russian radar fell into the sea, according to the latest update from the RIA news agency.
Scepticism about that Russian report:
Analyst Aaron Stein, non-proliferation program manager at the Istanbul thinktank the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, tweets:
The Russian embassy in Syria says there has been indication yet of an attack on Damascus.
Meanwhile, Israel which is believed to have the best intelligence capacity in the region, can’t confirm Russia’s report. Reuters again:
Israel said on Tuesday it was unaware of any ballistic missile launch being conducted in the eastern Mediterranean.
“We are not aware, at this time, of such an event having occurred,” a military spokeswoman in Jerusalem said after a Russian news agency reported the launch of two ballistic “objects” from the central part of the sea eastward.
A little more detail on that alarming Russian report via Reuters:
Russian radar detected two ballistic “objects” that were fired towards the eastern Mediterranean from the central part of the sea on Tuesday, state-run news agency RIA quoted the Defence Ministry as saying.
The Defence Ministry declined immediate comment to Reuters. A ministry official had earlier criticised the United States for deploying warships in the Mediterranean close to Syria.
On Monday it emerged that Russia had dispatched a military reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean, where five US warships are operating in the lead-up to a widely expected air strike in Syria.
The Priazovye departed for the Syrian coast on Sunday to keep tabs on the situation there, Russia’s state news agency Itar-Tass quoted a military source as saying. Russia’s foreign minister has previously said his country was not planning to become involved in a military conflict over Syria.
“This is the normal policy of any fleet in the case of an increase in tensions in any ocean or sea,” the source said.
The Russian deployment follows the arrival last week of the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, sent to relieve the USS Mahan. A US defence official told AFP that both destroyers might remain in the area for now. Along with the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, the destroyers could launch Tomahawk missiles at targets in Syria if Obama orders an attack.
A group of US ships led by the aircraft carrier Nimitz have been deployed in the Arabian Sea.
Russia says ‘objects’ fired
The Russia’s Defence Ministry says it has detected two ballistic ‘objects’ fired towards the eastern Mediterranean.
Reuters cites the Russian news agency RIA Novosti for the report.
We’ll have more details as we get them.
Sweden has become the the first country in the EU to offer permanent residency to Syrian refugees, according to the Swedish news site The Local.
The decision covers all asylum seekers from Syria who have been granted temporary residency in Sweden for humanitarian protection. They will now receive permanent residence permits, the Swedish Migration Board announced on Tuesday.
Previously, around half of Syrian asylum seekers had been granted permanent residency, with the remaining half receiving three-year residence permits.
The foreign ministers of countries neighbouring Syria are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the refugee crisis, the UNHCR reports.
The influx crisis has hit Lebanon worst, according to Relief Web.
Lebanon has more refugees, as a percentage of the population, than any other country. And this trend is increasing. Following the 2011 Syrian crisis, also Lebanon hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country. In addition, it has a substantial Palestinian refugee community, and a relatively small Iraqi refugee population.
High level defection?
There are unconfirmed reports of a high-level defection from the Assad regime.
The Syria opposition claims that an Alawite officer who leads an “important branch” of the security services, is collaborating with rebels, according to the Arabic news site Aksaler (hat tip to the rspected Syria watcher Joshua Landis points out.
The Syrian online activist, The 47th, is hearing similar rumours.
The British Red Cross warns that the official UN figures for refugees masks even greater numbers who have fled Syria but have not made an appeal for asylum.
Pete Garratt, British Red Cross disaster manager, said:
To have reached this landmark figure of two million registered refugees is shocking, but the true figure is likely to be higher. We know there are people who will not have registered for support, for many reasons. They may be afraid of any form of authority or of registering their status.”
In Jordan, the majority [70%] of refugees are living in urban areas away from the camps, presenting additional challenges for agencies in both finding the families who need support, and getting the aid to them.
The latest UN figures are updated here.
Welcome to Middle East Live.
Here’s a roundup of the latest on the crisis in Syria:
• The number of Syrians forced to flee the country has doubled in just six months to 2 million prompting the UN to describe the refugee crisis as the worst in history. Announcing the figures, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, said Syria had become “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
• Syrian military commanders are continuing to redeploy forces away from sensitive sites ahead of a postponed US air strike that many in Damascus believe is still likely. Residents of the Syrian capital said troops had moved into schools and universities, which officials calculate are unlikely to be hit if Barack Obama orders an attack following a congressional vote next Monday.
• Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has challenged the west to come up with “a single piece” of evidence that he has used chemical weapons and warned that any military intervention in Syria could spark a “regional war”. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, he said: “The Middle East is a powder keg, and today the fuse is getting shorter.”
In what will be one of the most high-profile political set pieces in Washington in weeks, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel will testify to the Senate Foreign Relations committee, on Tuesday.
America’s top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will also go before the panel.
• British military officials, who had been working with the US on Syria, are now being excluded from meetings following last week’s parliamentary vote against military action, according to the Times. Its military sources said the role of senior British officers based at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, has been downgraded because they cannot be trusted with high-level intelligence about a conflict with which they are no longer involved. William Hague is due to answer questions on Syria in the Commons this morning.
• Ed Miliband has toughened his opposition to intervention by saying that Labour would only support military action if Britain’s national security was threatened or al-Qaida and its affiliates gained possession of large stockpiles of chemical weapons. Labour’s leadership has decided there would have to be a “very significant change” in circumstances to allow Britain to join any operation in Syria.
• A ComRes survey for the Independent has underlined public opposition to military intervention in Syria. Two-thirds of those polled said they were against US plans for military strikes against the Assad regime. And 62% agreed that the experience of the 2003 Iraq war means that Britain should keep out of military conflicts in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
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