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.
More than 100,000 people have died since the rebellion to oust long-time leader Assad erupted in March 2011.
The UN refugee agency Tuesday revealed that some two million Syrians have now fled the country, in a tide of humanity which is straining resources in neighboring countries. Millions more have also been displaced inside the country.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, described the figures as a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
The two-million milestone — which represents a nine-fold increase in 12 months — was not just an appalling statistic, but represents “two million individual stories. Two million people, many have lost their houses, members of their families, their possessions,” Guterres said.
On average, some 5,000 Syrians flee their country every day, the UNHCR says.
As part of the White House offensive to win over skeptical lawmakers, the US secretaries of state and defense were to appear before a Senate panel later Tuesday.
Amid the mounting anxiety, Israel and the United States launched a missile over the Mediterranean as part of a joint exercise.
However, the Pentagon said the test was not linked to any possible US military action against Syria.
“The test was long-planned to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system’s ability to detect, track, and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
France, which backs Obama in his determination to launch a military intervention in Syria, Tuesday called on Europe to unite in its response to the crisis.
“When a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer,” French President Francois Hollande said.
“This answer is expected from the international community,” he said.
Paris Monday released an intelligence report which said Assad’s forces had carried out a “massive” chemical attack last month.
Based on military and foreign intelligence services, the report said the regime launched an attack “combining conventional means with the massive use of chemical agents” on rebel-held areas near Damascus on August 21.
France has emerged as the main US ally in the Syria crisis after the British parliament last week rejected involvement in any military action.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to push Russia and others to back a diplomatic solution to the Syria conflict at the G20 in Saint Petersburg this week.