By Roberta Rampton and John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Friday he will take his case for military action in Syria directly to the American people next week and acknowledged his problems in convincing Congress to back strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Speaking in Russia, where he is attending the G20 summit, Obama told reporters he will address the nation from the White House on Tuesday in an effort to build public and congressional support for a military response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Obama faces significant resistance to the proposed strikes in Congress, where scores of lawmakers are still undecided about authorizing military force. Opinion polls show a war-weary public strongly opposes U.S. action in Syria.
“In terms of the votes and the process in Congress, I knew this was going to be a heavy lift,” Obama told reporters in St. Petersburg.
“I understand the skepticism. I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through, systematically, making the case to every senator and every member of Congress. And that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Administration officials have given public testimony and daily closed-door briefings on Syria to members of Congress but the fate of a resolution authorizing military action rests with scores of unconvinced U.S. lawmakers from both parties.
Members of Congress say they are concerned that even limited military strikes in Syria could draw the United States into a prolonged war and spark broader hostilities in the region.
So far, many say they have unanswered questions, and administration officials are expected to continue briefings once Congress returns from its August recess on Monday.
The Democratic-led Senate convened for slightly more than four minutes on Friday, ending the month-long summer break, in a procedural move that will help speed consideration next week of a measure authorizing military action against Syria.
Obama said he is striving to convince lawmakers the response will be limited “both in time and in scope” but still meaningful enough to degrade Assad’s capacity to deliver chemical weapons in the future and serve as a deterrent to their use.
“The concern really has to do with understanding that what we’re describing here would be limited and proportionate and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use,” Obama said. “And that is going to be the case that I try to make, not just to Congress, but to the American people over the coming days.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly approved on Wednesday an authorization that prohibits the use of U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria and limits the duration of the action to 60 days, with one possible 30-day extension.
But aides in both the Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are still uncertain about the outcome of votes in those chambers as many lawmakers are withholding judgment. A Senate debate will begin next week, with a first full Senate vote possible on Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used the brief Friday session to prepare the legislation for floor debate.
Referring to U.S. intelligence reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own citizens, Reid said: “As we know, many, many people were killed with this, including almost 500 children.”
Obama has had trouble rallying international support for a military response to the August 21 chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. The British Parliament voted last week against Britain’s participation in the action.
But Obama said that most leaders of the G20 countries agreed that Assad was responsible for using poison gas on civilians, although there was disagreement about whether force could be used without going through the United Nations.
Obama said he did not believe U.N. Security Council support was required.
“Given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action,” he said.
Obama declined to say whether he will proceed with military action against Syria if U.S. lawmakers vote against his plan, despite earlier comments from a top aide suggesting he would not use such force without congressional support.
“The president of course has the authority to act, but it’s neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him,” deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told National Public Radio on Friday.
Obama rejected criticism that he was playing politics by asking Congress for authorization, and acknowledged that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was not a direct threat to the United States.
“I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States,” Obama told reporters.
“In that situation, obviously, I don’t worry about Congress; we do what we have to do to keep the American people safe,” he said.