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Obama's gambling on support from Congress for air strikes on Syria

By Andrew Grice and David Usborne

President Barack Obama's appeal to Congress for support for strikes against Syria will have its first big test today as Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel face a fierce grilling on Capitol Hill.

It comes amid signs in Washington of deep anxiety about unintended consequences and unforeseeable outcomes of military action.

The Syrian president Bashar Assad warned last night that the Middle East could "explode" if the United States and France pressed ahead with threatened air strikes on Syria.

In an interview with the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Mr Assad said: "The Middle East is a barrel of powder and today the flames are creeping closer. It is not just a question of the Syrian response but what else might happen after the first (Western) air strikes? Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder barrel explodes".

As Washington aides scrambled behind the scenes to redraft a first version of an authorisation bill that has so far received short shrift from increasingly sceptical members of Congress, Mr Obama sought support in talks at the White House from John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two key Republican senators. Mr McCain has disdained the decision, announced on Saturday, to seek prior congressional approval.

Hanging over all of Washington still is last Thursday's shock parliamentary vote in Britain, staying the hand of Prime Minister David Cameron. Casting just as long a shadow in the US – as they have in London – are memories of 2003 when the Bush administration took America into the Iraq War with what turned out to be severely flawed intelligence.

Mr Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg yesterday rejected growing all-party pressure from MPs and peers for another Commons vote on whether Britain should join air strikes in Syria.

WHAT NEXT?

There is little understating the stakes for Barack Obama. Rejection by Congress would be seen to significantly weaken his authority domestically and internationally. Since the War Powers Act of 1973, no US President has been turned down seeking authority to use the US military overseas. A bill was passed in 2002 giving the green light to George W Bush for the Iraq War.

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