WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration explained its strategy to Congress Tuesday for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons, holding closed briefings and private conference calls with lawmakers who are unenthusiastic about the possibility of being asked again to authorize U.S. military action against Bashar Assad's government.
Back from last week's negotiations in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a chemical weapons plan ironed out with Russia. One of Kerry's deputies, Wendy Sherman, spoke by telephone with House Foreign Affairs Committee members.
The talks come amid continued diplomatic wrangling over how to collect Syria's arsenal of chemical and biological agents to prevent any repeat of the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus that, according to the U.S., killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children.
Last week, President Barack Obama asked Senate leaders to suspend a vote on authorizing force against Syria amid deep opposition in Congress and among the American public. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, worked on details of a plan for Syria to turn over its weapons, and Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's top international backer, are pursuing that approach through the United Nations.
The early signs are promising, with U.S. and Russian officials reaching an ambitious agreement over the weekend that calls for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons program within a week, and its complete eradication by mid-2014. Numerous obstacles remain, however.
Moscow insisted Tuesday that any new U.N. Security Council resolution must not support the idea of the United States launching military strikes in the event diplomacy fails, challenging a persistent refrain of top American officials in recent days. And even as a U.N. report this week confirmed the use of sarin in last month's attack, Russia blamed the rebels while the U.S. and its European and Arab allies said Assad's forces were responsible.
Kerry planned to update Senate members on the details of the agreement with Russia and try to build support for it, according to U.S. officials and congressional aides, describing a continuation of his efforts over the past couple of days with key allies in the Middle East and Europe.
Despite toning down the rhetoric in recent days, Obama and his national security team have stressed the importance of maintaining a credible military threat. But Congress' tepid support for any action, which is likely to grow only weaker as lawmakers focus now on the economy and averting a government shutdown, risks undermining the effort.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a leading supporter of tough action against Assad's government said the U.S. must show the resolve to act if either Syria or Russia backs out of the deal. "It is a continued credible threat of military force that will keep them on track to uphold the provisions of that agreement," he said Tuesday.
Others challenged whether the U.S. and Russia could effectively work together.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., at a Senate forum accused Russian banks of financing Assad's government through 2 1/2 years of civil war that has now killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. He said the administration should freeze Russian bank assets in the U.S. and put travel bans on employees.
"That is a pressure point that we ought to be exerting," Blumenthal said. Last week, he and three other senators sent a bipartisan letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew demanding action against the Russian financial institution that allow Assad to "continue military purchases and pay the soldiers that sustain the war in Syria."
Associated Press writer Marjorie Olster contributed to this report.