BEIRUT: Barack Obama is to meet with his 2008 presidential opponent Sen. John McCain Monday as he seeks approval from Congress for U.S. military intervention in Syria.
The planned meeting comes several hours after a French government source said intelligence reports show Syrian President Bashar Assad carried out a "massive and coordinated" chemical attack on Aug. 21.
Obama’s decision over the weekend to seek congressional approval for a military strike on Syria in response to the chemical attack sets the stage for the biggest foreign policy vote in Congress since the Iraq war. A vote could come once lawmakers return from summer break, which is scheduled to end Sept. 9.
Before then, Obama must sell the idea to a nation scarred by more than a decade of war.
McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham will be at Monday's talks. Both have argued that Obama must oust President Bashar Assad from power and seek to change the course of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000.
And both have threatened to vote against Obama's authorization if the military plan doesn't seek to shift the momentum of the civil war toward the rebels trying to oust Assad from power.
Of the two chambers of Congress, the Senate is seen as the easier sell, as it is run by Obama's Democrats and contains a number of Republicans who have been pressing for military action.
The Republican-run House of Representatives however includes many conservatives who have blocked Obama's agenda across the board, and may be keen to thwart the president abroad, despite his warnings that U.S. credibility is at stake, as it has already done at home.
McCain and Graham, both Republicans, represent the most aggressive faction in Congress. They have called on Obama to launch comprehensive military strikes with an aim of destroying Assad's air power, his military command and control, Syria's ballistic missiles and other military targets while giving opposition forces more arms and training.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the administration announced it will send Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Capitol Hill Tuesday to intensify a fervent White House effort to win support for military strikes in Syria.
The pair will testify to the Senate Foreign Relations committee in what will be one of the most high profile political set pieces in Washington in weeks.
Kerry, who used to run the committee and Hagel, a Republican who emerged as a fierce critic of former president George W. Bush's Iraq policy are both former senators.
Russian lawmakers want to travel to Washington to urge Congress not to back Obama's plan, the speaker of the upper house of parliament told President Vladimir Putin Monday.
Dismissing U.S. accusations that the Syrian government had killed hundreds of its own people with poison gas as nothing but "talk", senior legislator Valentina Matviyenko said both chambers were ready to send delegations.
Evidence of alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime presented to Moscow by the U.S. and its allies is "absolutely unconvincing," Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov added.
"There was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals." He did not describe the tests further,” he said.
As the Obama administration geared up to push the vote through, the government of French President Francois Hollande released satellite evidence they say shows that the chemical strikes came from government-held areas.
The nine-page document - issued by external and military intelligence services and to be presented to lawmakers later Monday- lays out five points that suggest Assad was behind the attacks. "This poses a major threat to national and global security," the source said.
The intelligence includes satellite imagery showing the attacks coming from government-controlled areas to the east and west of Damascus and targeting rebel-held zones. The source said Assad's forces had since bombed the areas to wipe out evidence.
"Unlike previous attacks that used small amounts of chemicals and were aimed at terrorizing people, this attack was tactical and aimed at regaining territory," the source said.
The French parliament is to hold a debate Wednesday on taking action on Syria.
Hollande is the army's commander in chief under the French constitution and empowered to order an intervention. His sole obligation is to inform parliament within three days of action starting.
Only if it were to last more than four months would he be obliged to seek parliamentary approval for it to continue.
With opinion polls showing up to two-thirds of the public would oppose an intervention in Syria, several conservative, centrist and green politicians called over the weekend for France to hold a special parliamentary vote.
NATO's secretary-general also said on Monday he had seen evidence convincing him Syrian authorities were behind the deadly attack and said it would send a "dangerous signal to dictators" if the world did not respond firmly.
However, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was up to individual NATO countries to decide how they would respond to the attack and he did not envisage any NATO role beyond existing plans to defend NATO member Turkey, which borders Syria.
"I have been presented with concrete information and, without going into details, I can tell you that personally I am convinced, not only that a chemical attack has taken place ..., but I am also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible," Rasmussen told a news conference.
Despite the political wrangling in Paris and Washington over intervention, USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and four other ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea early Monday, U.S. defense officials said, describing the move as "prudent planning" in case the ships are needed for military action.
The officials said the Nimitz entered the Red Sea around 6 a.m. EDT (1000 GMT), but the strike group had not received any orders to move into the Mediterranean, where five U.S. destroyers and an amphibious ship remain poised for possible cruise missile strikes against Syria.
Simultaneously Russia is sending a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean, Interfax news agency reported.
The reconnaissance ship left Russia's naval base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol late on Sunday on a mission "to gather current information in the area of the escalating conflict", the Interfax report quoted an unidentified military source as saying.