US Senate to vote on striking Syria

US Senate Committee voted in favour of the strike which opened the way for a full Senate vote.

US President Barack Obama. Picture: AFP

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama's efforts to win legislative backing for military strikes against Syria passed its first hurdle on Wednesday when a Senate committee voted in favour, but the narrow margin of victory showed the depth of US caution.

After much jockeying over the exact wording, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorising the use of military force in Syria in a vote that avoided party lines, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides. The action cleared the way for a vote in the full Senate, likely to take place sometime next week.

The committee voted 10-7 in favour of a compromise resolution that sets a 60-day limit on any engagement in Syria, with a possible 30-day extension, and bars the use of US troops on the ground for combat operations.

Washington and Syria's main backer, Russia, remained publicly at odds as Obama tried to build his case for military action over chemical weapons before flying to Russia for a G20 summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

Putin said US congressional approval without a UN Security Council resolution would be an act of aggression, and accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of lying by playing down the role of the militant group al Qaeda with rebel forces.

With Obama focused on building international support, administration officials kept up their campaign of persuasion in Congress, where deep US scepticism about going to war was reflected in a House of Representatives hearing.

The administration is trying to balance the views of many in Congress who want a narrowly defined resolution against hawks such as Senator John McCain, who has pushed for a broader resolution that would allow direct US support for rebels.

The Senate committee adopted amendments proposed by McCain with policy goals of degrading Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, increasing support for rebel forces and reversing battlefield momentum to create conditions for Assad's removal.

The authorisation still faces significant resistance in Congress, where many lawmakers fear it could lead to a prolonged US military involvement in Syria's civil war and spark an escalation of regional violence.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the resolution next week. The House of Representatives also must approve the measure.

RUSSIAN REMAINS AN OBSTACLE

Obama said he would continue to try to persuade Putin of the need for punitive strikes on Assad for using chemical weapons when the two meet in St. Petersburg.

In Stockholm en route to Russia, Obama said the credibility of America and of the world was at stake. He appeared to take umbrage at a reporter's question about the "red line" he set for Assad at an August 2012 White House news conference.

"I did not set a red line. The world set a red line," Obama said, referring to bans on chemical weapons use.

Putin again questioned Western evidence.

Earlier, Putin had said in a pre-summit interview with the Associated Press that he could not absolutely "rule out" Russia supporting a UN Security Council resolution to punish Assad - if it could be proved he had used poison gas.

DEFECTION

Numerous defections over the past two years by senior commanders, either to the rebel Free Syrian Army or into exile abroad, have not led to a collapse of Assad's defences.

Habib, the former defence minister, had been under house arrest since he resigned in protest at Assad's crackdown on demonstrators in 2011. He managed to reach the Turkish border late on Tuesday with Western help; Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Coalition told Reuters.

State television denied the reports.

The flight of Habib, if confirmed, would lend credibility to suggestions that parts of the Alawite community may be turning against Assad.

MILITARY ACTION

Following the failure of British Prime Minister David Cameron to win parliamentary backing for air strikes last week, Washington has been struggling to build an international coalition for action in the absence of a UN resolution.

Kerry told lawmakers that at least 10 countries had pledged to participate in a US military intervention in Syria.

France and Turkey are the most significant military powers lining up behind Obama.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that failure to strike Assad would send a message to the likes of Iran and North Korea that they could defy Western powers with impunity, notably over concerns about their nuclear programs.

In a possible sign of internal unrest in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ruling Alawite sect in the shadow of a likely US intervention, Syrian opposition figures said General Ali Habib, a former defence minister, had defected. Syria denied the report.