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 Barack Obama’s most hawkish Republican critics, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said Monday that he supported a “limited” strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian opposition.
In an hourlong meeting at the White House, McCain said Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were discussed. In the same conversation, which also included Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, officials said that Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to train the Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, which 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 the 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. McCain said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.”
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.