WASHINGTON (AP) - Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Fl, opposes any military strikes against Syria, saying the United States instead should work toward exerting diplomatic pressure on the Bashar Assad regime along with Russia's help.
"Our country has had enough of war in the Middle East," Rooney said, fearing any U.S. military action against Syria might turn into a regional war in the Middle East, endanger U.S. allies there and build more anti-U.S. sentiments.
Legislators on Capitol Hill are debating whether to approve a proposed resolution authorizing limited military force against the Middle Eastern country over allegations the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the country's civil war.
The two-year conflict has reportedly killed more than 100,000 Syrians.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday that when chemical weapons were used in Syria last spring, President Barack Obama did not have a "compelling" enough case to push for a U.S. military response.
Testifying to the committee Wednesday, Kerry said that while Obama didn't have a strong enough case then, it does now after the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus.
The House and Senate next week are expected to debate Obama's request.
Rooney said Wednesday that an air assault against Syria could turn, what is now a civil war within its boundaries, into a regional conflict.
"Assad will want to make a statement," Rooney said, fearing he might strike in retaliation against a U.S. ally in the region - from Israel to Turkey to Jordan.
Any potential strikes to destroy the chemical weapons Assad allegedly owns without targeting him also sends "mixed messages," Rooney added.
"We are calling him a war criminal and then saying he's not really a target," he said.
If Assad is a war criminal, he should be tried and treated as a war criminal just like some others, such as Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Rooney said.
Rooney also feared what the aftermath of the strikes could bring to U.S. public image.
As soon as the U.S. attacks, he said, the world will be shown pictures of "children in hospitals, dead bodies on the street."
"That's going to galvanize anti-U.S. sentiment," he said.
While Rooney said he was "going to stay pat" on his decision to oppose any U.S. military involvement in the Syria, support or opposition on Capitol Hill to the proposed resolution remained fluid.
In an initial survey, the AP found 17 senators supporting or leaning in favor of the resolution approving a U.S. military response in Syria, and 14 against or leaning against it. There were 69 senators who either said they were undecided or whose views were unknown. Of those supporting or leaning in favor of the resolution, 13 were Democrats and four were Republicans. Those against or leaning against the resolution were 2 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent.
Rooney's call for the U.S. to "let bygones be bygones" with Russia and try to jointly exert pressure on Assad came as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria but also said Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1 television, Putin said Moscow has provided some components of the S-300 air defense missile system to Syria but has frozen further shipments. He suggested that Russia may sell the potent missile systems elsewhere if Western nations attack Syria without U.N. Security Council backing.
"Russia holds a lot of cards on what Assad does," Rooney said, adding any diplomatic efforts between the two countries to sway Syria would work better than air assaults.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution Wednesday in a 10-7 vote, approving the "limited and specified use" of the U.S. armed forces against Syria, backing a resolution that restricts military action to 90 days and bars American ground troops from combat.
The Senate panel's deep divide over giving Obama the authority to use U.S. military force against Syria underscores the commander in chief's challenge in persuading skeptical lawmakers and wary allies to back greater intervention in an intractable civil war.
The administration was pressing ahead Thursday with its full-scale sales job, holding another round of closed-door meetings for members of Congress about its intelligence on Syria. On another continent, Obama was certain to face questions from world leaders when he arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, for an economic summit.
The event's host, Putin, stands as a reminder of resistance to U.S. pleas for Moscow to intervene with its ally Syria and Assad.
Obama's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, picked up the sales pitch for the absent president Thursday, appearing on several morning news shows.
In an appearance on MSNBC, Blinken said he believes the American people will be more supportive of Obama's request once they see the Syrian situation as a separate and distinct problem as opposed to viewing it "in the prism of the last decade" of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is not open-ended. This is not boots on the ground. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Iraq. This is not even Libya," Blinken said.
He said that if the United States does not stand up to Assad and against the use of chemical weapons, some world figures will believe "it's OK to use them with impunity."
Kerry, testifying for the second consecutive day before Congress, insisted that the U.S. military response would be restricted as Americans fatigued by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan show little inclination to get involved in Syria.
"I don't believe we're going to war, I just don't believe that," Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, citing the ground troops and long-term commitment that he said wars entail. "That's not what we're doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle."
In the Senate, five Republicans, including potential presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, and two Democrats opposed the resolution, which is expected to reach the Senate floor next week. The timing of a vote is uncertain.
"I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive," Rubio said. "After a few days of missile strikes, it will allow Assad, for example, to emerge and claim that he took on the United States and survived."
Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster, although he acknowledged that proponents have the votes to prevail in the Senate, and he pinned his hopes on the House.
The notion of a contained operation has failed to sway many Republicans and Democrats in the House, who question why the U.S. should get involved now in a Syrian civil war that has killed an estimated 100,000, displaced millions and is in its third year. While House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have expressed support for military action, but rank-and-file Republicans remain reluctant or outright opposed.
Republican Rep. Chris Collins said voters in his western New York district are "overwhelmingly against involvement." The freshman congressman is undecided.
"Really, I'm looking for the president to justify limited military strike and establish what are the objectives he's seeking and what is the mission," Collins said in a phone interview.
Kerry told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he believed Obama would address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president returns home from overseas Friday night.
Speaking in Sweden on Wednesday, Obama left open the possibility he would order retaliation for the deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.
"I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," he told a news conference. In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress' credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line."
The Senate panel's vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria and instead asked lawmakers to unite behind such a plan.
The vote capped a hectic few days in which lawmakers first narrowed the scope of Obama's request and then widened it.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of aggressive U.S. military action in Syria, joined forces with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to add a provision calling for "decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria."
At their urging, the measure was also changed to state that the policy of the United States was "to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria." McCain, who long has accused Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Assad will be willing to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes he is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for more than two years.