Obama strikes Syria chord, but lawmakers stay on fence

WASHINGTON, District of Columbia, Sept 11, 2013 (AFP) - War-weary US lawmakers opposing military intervention in Syria appeared unswayed by President Barack Obama's speech Tuesday but hopeful that a diplomatic initiative might rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons.

While members of Congress both for and against a military strike said the president made a compelling moral case for intervention, potentially insurmountable bipartisan opposition against Obama's use-of-force plan has congealed in Congress over the past week.

"President Obama's speech didn't convince me," Republican Senator Rand Paul, one of the lawmakers most stridently opposed to Obama's Syria plan, said on twitter.

"My whole point is that the president's moral message about this being a horrific thing, which it is, you still leave the same guy in place," Paul added on CNN, speaking of Syria's strongman Bashar al-Assad.

"If we destabilise the Assad regime there'll be more chaos and we will essentially be the allies of al-Qaeda," some of whose militants are among the rebels fighting the regime in Syria.

Elijah Cummings, a House Democrat and loyal Obama backer, said he remains undecided on Syria even though the president made "a great moral argument" that America must not let a dictator unleash poison gas without repercussions.

"He's got to make it clear to me... that this is not going to mushroom into something else," Cummings said. "My constituents are tired of war."

Obama has called for a "limited" military strike on the regime, but Congress has not jumped on board.

The president trooped up to Capitol Hill for meetings with senators Tuesday, "but he's found out the support is not there. It's just not there," said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who remains opposed to a military strike.

But diplomatic developments within the last 24 hours have upended the strict nature of Obama's military argument.

He essentially postponed his call for a congressional vote on authorization of use of force after Damascus welcomed a Russian plan to gather and destroy the Assad regime's chemical arsenal - an initiative many lawmakers appeared to back.

"The diplomatic door has opened ever so slightly and while I have doubts about this 11th hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration," Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

While congressional leaders have largely backed the president, many rank-and-file members tweeted their firm opposition.

"My stance hasn't changed," Republican congressman Alan Nunnelee posted on Twitter. "Heart goes out to victims of war but his plan for Syria is weak & not in national interest."

Veteran Democrat Charlie Rangel is opposed to military intervention but said he was pleased Obama was exploring diplomatic means to resolving the crisis.

"I am optimistic that the international community can come together to urge Assad to do the right thing and surrender his chemical weapons," Rangel said.

"Military action should be an absolute last resort, used only when the entire nation is fully committed to sending our sons and daughters to fight."

Obama recognised the tough sell of striking Syria now, "after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan," but he called on lawmakers to overcome their reluctance to consider the use of force in a situation crying out for a firm hand.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, among a cadre of conservatives striking a non-interventionist position, said he got a call from the White House chief of staff shortly after Obama's speech, but to no avail.

"Still no explanation of steps 2, 3, 4, etc. and consequences of going to war in Syria. I am still a NO," he tweeted.