WASHINGTON — The White House’s aggressive push for congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.
In an hourlong meeting at the White House, McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria.
There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, McCain and Graham said, that any attack on Syria should be to “degrade” the Syrian government’s delivery systems, which could include aircraft, artillery, and the kind of rockets that the Obama administration says were used by the forces of President Bashar Assad to carry out an Aug. 21 sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 people.
The senators said they plan to meet with Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, to discuss the strategy in greater depth.
“It is all in the details, but I left the meeting feeling better than I felt before about what happens the day after, and that the purpose of the attack is going to be a little more robust than I thought,” Graham said in an interview.
But McCain said in an interview that Obama did not say specifically what weapons might be provided to the opposition or discuss in detail what Syrian targets might be attacked.
“There was no concrete agreement, ‘OK, we got a deal,’ ” McCain said. “Like a lot of things, the devil is in the details.” In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, McCain called the meeting “encouraging,” urged lawmakers to support Obama in his plan for military action in Syria, and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the United States and its credibility in the world.
Although the words from McCain and Graham were a positive development for Obama and a critical part of the administration’s lobbying blitz on Syria on Monday, the White House still faces a tough fight in Congress. Many lawmakers entirely oppose a strike, and others favor a resolution that provides for more limited military action than what is in a draft resolution that the White House has sent to Capitol Hill. The conflict of opinion underscores Obama’s challenge in winning a vote in the House and Senate next week and avoiding personal defeat.
A Labor Day conference call with five of Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 lawmakers of both parties attended a classified briefing Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?’ ” Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview after the Monday conference call.
The push in Washington came as reaction continued around the world to the president’s abrupt decision over the weekend to change course and postpone a military strike to seek authorization from Congress first.
In France, the only nation to offer vigorous support for an American attack, there were rising calls for a parliamentary vote like the one in last week in Britain, where lawmakers jolted the White House with a rejection of a British military attack.
In Washington, the White House’s “flood the zone” effort, as one official called it, will continue. Classified briefings will be held for all House members and senators on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
On Tuesday, Obama has invited the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate defense, foreign affairs, and intelligence committees to the White House. But that night, he departs on a long-planned foreign trip, first to Sweden and then to Russia for the annual Group of 20 summit meeting of major industrialized and developing nations, a forum that is sure to be dominated by talk of Syria, and bring Obama face-to-face with Assad’s chief ally and arms supplier, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
House Democrats on the conference call with administration officials, which lasted 70 minutes, said Kerry, who has been the most aggressive and public prosecutor for military action, took the lead. Democrats said he portrayed not only the horrors of chemical weapons inflicted on Syrian civilians in the Aug. 21 attacks outside Damascus, but also the potential threat, if left unanswered, that such weapons posed to regional allies like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.
Kerry argued that inaction could embolden Iran or nonstate terrorists to strike those Middle East allies, and further encourage Iran and North Korea to press ahead with their nuclear programs.
“One of the important propositions that Kerry put to members was: Are you willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing?” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.
The secretary of state addressed lawmakers’ concern that the United States should have international support. “The United States will not go it alone,” he said at one point, according to a senior Democrat who declined to be identified. Offers of “military assets” have come from France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, he said, without identifying the assets, and more are expected.
In the week since the Obama administration began moving toward a military strike on the Assad government, Kerry said, the Syrian military has seen about 100 defections, including 80 officers.
McCain, who has been arguing for two years that the United States should support a moderate Syrian opposition, said he had strongly urged the president Monday to provide antitank and antiaircraft systems to the opposition and to attack the Syrian air force.
Obama indicated that “he favorably viewed the degrading of Bashar al-Assad’s capabilities as well as upgrading the Free Syrian Army,” McCain said.
Administration officials have told Congress that the CIA’s program to arm the rebels would be deliberately limited at first to allow a trial run for American officials to monitor it before ramping up to a larger, more aggressive campaign. American officials have been wary that arms provided to the rebels could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda.