The White House ratcheted up lobbying Monday to convince Congress to authorize military action against Syria over an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces.
President Barack Obama met with Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Monday afternoon for the first of a string of meetings this week laying the groundwork for congressional approval.
Speaking to reporters outside the White House, McCain rallied his colleagues to act decisively on potential U.S. military strikes, calling on lawmakers to pass a resolution that “a majority of the members of both houses can support.”
“A vote against that resolution by Congress,” McCain said, “I think would be catastrophic,” adding that such a move would “undermine the credibility of the United States.”
Both McCain and Graham stressed that the goal of any military action should be to “degrade Assad’s capabilities” and “upgrade” the resources of the Syrian opposition.
And they both leveled criticism at Obama, charging him with failing to “articulate” a clear case for intervention as violence rages in Syria.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats on Monday that they face a “Munich moment” as they weigh authorizing military strikes against Assad’s regime, two sources with knowledge of the call told NBC News.
The phrase refers to the 1938 Munich Pact that effectively ceded control of part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany — a move that history has judged as an appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the lead-up to the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Other key officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, made a forceful case for intervention to 127 Democratic legislators. Many House members expressed skepticism about a possible strike, the sources told NBC News.
However, some Democrats came to the Obama administration’s defense during the 70-minute conference call, sources said. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that stemming the spread of weapons of mass destruction was a critical piece of U.S. national security policy, according to the sources.
The conference follows Kerry's announcement on NBC's Meet The Press on Sunday that samples collected from the site of a suspected Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack tested positive for the deadly nerve agent, sarin.
The political moves came as United Nations said 6.2 million Syrians had been displaced by the country's deadly civil war - representing between one third and one quarter of the country's population, based on estimates.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also told reporters on Monday he had seen evidence convincing him Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack, Reuters reported.
In another development on Monday, a U.S. Defense Department Official confirmed that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz had arrived in the Red Sea.
Russia, an arms supplier to Assad which opposes military intervention, said Kerry's chemical-weapons evidence was "unconvincing" and fell far short of the standard needed to justify military action, a New York Times report said, quoting Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.
The Interfax news agency also reported Russia was sending a reconnaissance ship, the Priazovye, to the eastern Mediterranean which President Vladimir Putin said was necessary to protect national security interests, Reuters said.
Peter Kessler, spokesman for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said the number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million - including almost two million who have crossed the border into neighboring countries. He added that just $1.5 billion of the U.N.'s record $5-billion Syrian aid appeal has been raised.
"There are enormous needs across the region," he told NBC News. "We have refugees in camps which need more schools, and refugees in cities who need more access to health care. So there are enormous needs."
He said more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, which had a pre-war population of around 20.8 million, since the 2011 uprising against Assad.
In an interview with BBC News' Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Failsal Mekdad said if the U.S. attacked without a resolution from the U.N. security council it would represent "a destruction of the existing international system."
Hassan Ammar / Hassan Ammar / AP, file
A woman who fled her home because of Syria's civil war prepares a meal as her child sits on the floor at the Kertaj Hotel in Damascus, Syria, in August.
Asked about the risks an attack would present to the U.S., Mekdad said: "More hatred for the Americans, more weakening of international institutions, terrorism will flourish everywhere. This will undermine the security of Americans, inside and outside their country, al Qaeda is there. Any attack against Syria is support of al Qaeda and its affiliates."
The international community is still deciding how to respond to the suspected Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which Syria's President Bashar Assad is alleged to have killed more than 1,400 of his people, many of them women and children.
President Francois Hollande of France is determined not to bow to opposition pressure to seek approval from lawmakers, foreign affairs committee chairwoman Elisabeth Guigou said, according to Reuters. The country's Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is expected to reveal classified documents that show the extent of Syria's chemical stockpile later Monday.
NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said Monday he believed firm international response is needed on Syria, and that inaction would be "a dangerous signal to dictators all over the world."
A senior defense official told NBC News that the Marine Corps recruiting website was hacked and that “it appears that it was targeted by the Syrian Electronic Army,” the group that claims it shut down Twitter, the Huffington Post and the New York Times and other media outlets.
The hackers posted a letter on the website, urging on Marines to refuse orders to attack Syria and calling Obama a “traitor” who wanted to “rescue Al Qaeda insurgents.”
“Marines, please take a look at what your comrades think about Obama’s alliance with Al Qaeda against Syria. Your officer in charge probably has no qualms about sending you to die against soldiers just like you, fighting a vile common enemy,” said the letter, which has since been removed.
“The Syrian army should be your ally not your enemy.”
The hacking collective, which is reportedly run by a group of 20-something Syrian computer students, has previously threatened to wage cyberattacks on U.S. government agencies if the Obama administration launches a military strike against Assad’s regime.
And yet despite this threat and previous digital attacks, the U.S. government isn’t especially worried about the group, U.S. officials told NBC News. They don't believe the SEA has the capacity to cause the type of serious damage that cyberforces in countries like China and Russia are thought to be capable of inflicting.
"The Syrian Electronic Army is a murky, underground group that has made a name for itself by plastering pro-regime propaganda across some of the Internet's most-trafficked sites," said a U.S. official, speaking on background. "It's clearly a nuisance, but its tactics aren't all that sophisticated."
Robert Windrem, Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, Frank Thorp, Peter Alexander, Kasie Hunt and Daniel Arkin of NBC News, as well as Reuters, contributed to this report.
First published September 2 2013, 12:45 PM