Back home, high-stakes week on Syria awaits Obama

By Josh Lederman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

US President Barack Obama pauses as he answers a question regarding the ongoing situation in Syria during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a high-stakes week of trying to convince a skeptical Congress and a war-weary American public that they should back him on a military strike against Syria.

His administration came under pressure Saturday from European officials to delay possible action until U.N. inspectors report their findings about an Aug. 21 chemical attack that Obama blames on the Assad government.

Yet foreign ministers meeting in Lithuania with Secretary of State John Kerry did endorse a "clear and strong response" to an attack they said strongly points to President Bashar Assad's government. Kerry welcomed the "strong statement about the need for accountability," although the EU did not specify what an appropriate response would be.

The days ahead represent one of the most intense periods of congressional outreach for Obama, who's not known for investing heavily in consultations with Capitol Hill.

Just back from a European trip, Obama is working to salvage a policy whose fate he's placed in lawmakers' hands.

His administration's lobbying campaign culminates Tuesday, the evening before a critical vote is expected in the Senate. Obama will address the nation from the White House to make his case for military action.

"Over 1,400 people were gassed. Over 400 of them were children," Obama said Friday at the close of a global summit in Russia.

"This is not something we've fabricated. This is not something that we are using as an excuse for military action," he said. "I was elected to end wars, and not start them."

A passionate debate in Congress, which returns to work Monday after its summer break, already is underway.

On Wednesday, the first showdown Senate vote is likely over a resolution authorizing the "limited and specified use" of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat. A final vote in the 100-member chamber is expected at week's end.

A House vote is likely the week of Sept. 16.

A representative from the Syrian National Coalition, spokesman Khalid Saleh, was coming to Washington to meet with government officials and lawmakers.

Obama enters the fray having made some progress in his quest to win foreign support for a strike punishing Assad.

The president returned from Europe with a joint statement from nations backing "a strong international response to this grave violation of the world's rules and conscience."

His administration said the statement, signed by France, Saudi Arabia, Japan and others at the close of the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, was a clear endorsement for the limited military action the U.S. has been contemplating for weeks.

Absent from the list was Russian President Vladimir Putin, a stalwart Assad ally and staunch opponent of a U.S. strike.

European ministers said in their statement Saturday that the available intelligence "seems to indicate strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for these attacks."

But European Union nations want the U.N. investigation to play out and hoped a preliminary report could be released as soon as possible.

The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported that the U.N. inspectors could submit initial findings from their tests of samples collected in Syria by the end of the coming week.

The Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels were to blame.

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