President Barack Obama and his top aides launched a political charm offensive Sunday to persuade legislators to approve a military strike against Syria, a day after making the surprise announcement that while he intends to act, he would first seek a Congressional vote on a potential use of force.
Obama made calls to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, with more scheduled for Monday, while dozens of legislators met in the Capitol building for a Sunday afternoon intelligence briefing on Syria with Obama's national security team.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been the public face of the administration laying out evidence to bolster the claim that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 of its own people in a gas attack on Aug. 21, made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to further the case.
"This is squarely now in the hands of Congress," Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence lawmakers "will do what is right because they understand the stakes."
The administration’s full-court press came the same day as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first public comments in reaction to Obama's speech on Saturday.
He said that his country is capable of confronting any external aggression, and that threats of a U.S. attack would not discourage his government from a fight against an armed rebellion that Assad described as "terrorism."
"Syria ... is capable of confronting any external aggression," he said during a meeting with Iranian officials as reported by Syrian state television.
"The American threats of launching an attack against Syria will not discourage Syria away from its principles ... or its fight against terrorism supported by some regional and Western countries, first and foremost the United States of America," he said.
Obama's move to seek congressional approval for any military action was called the start of an "historic American retreat" by Syrian state newspaper Sunday.
The paper also said that Obama's reluctance to take military action stemmed from his "sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies." It said the American leader's worry about limited intervention turning into "an open war has pushed him to seek Congress' consent."
Some members of the Syrian opposition expressed disappointment with Obama's decision to seek approval before striking. "Military intervention is in the interest of the Syrian people -- we need this to solve the Syrian crisis," Col. Abdulbasit Sa'ad al-Dein, a Free Syrian Army leader based in Aleppo, Syria, told USA Today. "We need direct strikes on significant regime targets such as military installations ... to save civilian lives."
However, CBS News reported that among some rebel groups there is widespread belief that U.S. missile strikes may target them too, and so they have begun transferring their fighters and weapons undergound.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said on Sunday that Obama's speech showed a faltering of resolve. "It is clear there was a sense of hesitation and disappointment in what was said by President Barack Obama yesterday. And it is also clear there was a sense of confusion as well," he told reporters in Damascus.
Syria's minister for reconciliation issues, Ali Haidar, echoed that line.
"Obama has given himself a chance to take a step backward by talking about Congress' approval and to search for other parties to participate in the attack," Haidar told The Associated Press by telephone. "In other words, he wants to keep brandishing the sword of aggression on Syria without fully giving up the idea of an attack and even without setting a definite date for the aggression."
Also on Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers urged the international community and the United Nations to take "deterrent" action against the Syrian regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
"The United Nations and the international community are called upon to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures", the ministers said in a statement on Sunday following a meeting in Cairo.
It said that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad was "responsible" for the August 21 attack.
The foreign ministers also said those responsible for the attack should face trial, as other "war criminals" have done.
The meeting had been scheduled for Tuesday but was moved up "in light of rapid developments in the Syria situation and based on the request of several Arab states," Ahmed Ben Helli, Arab League deputy chief, said on Saturday.
As the world reacted to Obama's announcement, Pope Francis on Sunday condemned the use of chemical weapons and called for a negotiated settlement of the two-year-old civil war in Syria.
"My heart is deeply wounded by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic development," the Roman Catholic religious leader said in his weekly appearance in St. Peter's Square.
Also Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in interviews that there is new evidence for the use of sarin in the suspected chemical attacks. A U.S. intelligence report last week said the attacks killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
"In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus, and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet The Press." "So this case is building and this case will build."
The testing was conducted independently of the United Nations, which recently sent a team to Syria to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons. It could be as long as two weeks before its results are out.
Congress is scheduled to return from a summer break on Sept. 9. In anticipation of the coming debate on Syria, Obama on Saturday asked lawmakers to consider "what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price."
The White House has sent Congress a draft of a resolution seeking approval for a military response to "deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade" the Assad government’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The Senate will hold hearings soon so a vote can take place after Congress gets back to work.
Al Jazeera and wire services