WASHINGTON (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama won strong backing from key Republican leaders Tuesday for military strikes against Syria, as Washington dramatically closed ranks to send a message to President Bashar al-Assad that chemical weapons must not be used.
The developments in Washington came as the UN refugee agency released grim new statistics about the more than two-year-old conflict, saying more than two million Syrians have now fled the violence.
Obama warned as he met key congressional leaders at the White House that Assad must pay a price for violating an international norm by unleashing what the US has said was sarin gas on a Damascus suburb last month.
The use of such weapons not only resulted in “grotesque deaths” but also risked falling into the hands of terror groups or “non-state actors,” Obama warned.
“That poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region,” Obama said. “And as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable.”
Just over an hour later, John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives — who has fought tooth and nail with Obama on domestic policy — emerged from the West Wing with a firm endorsement of the president’s strategy.
“I am going to support the president’s call for action,” Boehner said.
“This is something that the United States as a country needs to do,” Boehner said, adding that he believed his colleagues should also support Obama’s request for authorization to use military force.
Moments later, another key Republican, House majority leader Eric Cantor, who is popular with the party’s conservative rank and file, also backed Obama’s stance.
“Assad’s Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, is the epitome of a rogue state, and it has long posed a direct threat to American interests and to our partners,” Cantor said.
The House, as opposed to the Democratic-led Senate, was seen as the tougher sell for Obama, after he put apparently imminent military strikes on hold on Saturday and decided to seek authorization from Congress.
While the backing of Republican leaders for strikes does not mean that lawmakers, weary of years of US wars abroad, will back military strikes, it substantially increases the odds of a yes vote, likely as soon as next week.
Assad, in a rare interview with Western media released on Monday, warned military strikes risked setting off a wider conflict in the Middle East.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war,” Assad said.
Copyright 2013 The National Memo