HARD HIT: Free Syrian Army fighters stand in front of buildings damaged during shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
HARD HIT: Free Syrian Army fighters stand in front of buildings damaged during shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama told leaders of Congress on Tuesday he wanted a "prompt" vote authorising military action against Syria, saying a united front will strengthen the US hand in confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Obama vowed that any strike by the US will be limited and "proportional", and would not involve US ground troops. He said he would be open to changes in the resolution authorising force to respond to concerns of legislators. "This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan."

Mr Obama spoke before a meeting with congressional leaders from both parties and the top legislators on the main committees dealing with national security issues. The session is part of the administration’s campaign to persuade US legislators that the US needs to apply military force in response to the Syrian government’s suspected use of sarin gas against civilians last month.

Influential Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham warned fellow legislators not to let Mr Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons go unanswered.

The Senate foreign relations committee was to hold its first hearing on Mr Obama’s request, with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying.

Meanwhile, Israel tested a US-backed missile system in the Mediterranean on Tuesday, a launch that was not announced in advance and whose disclosure by Russia kept the world on edge as Washington weighed an attack on Syria.

The launch was first reported by Moscow media that quoted Russian defence officials as saying two ballistic "objects" had been fired eastward from the centre of the sea — roughly in the direction of Syria.

The news ruffled financial markets until Israel’s defence ministry said that it, along with a Pentagon team, had carried out a test-launch of a Sparrow missile. The Sparrow, which simulates the long-range missiles of Syria and Iran, is used for target practice by Israel’s US-backed ballistic shield Arrow.

"Israel routinely fires missiles or drones off its shores to test its own ballistic defence capabilities," a US official said in Washington.

Western naval forces have been gathering in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea since Mr Assad was accused of carrying out an August 21 gas attack in his more than two-year-old conflict with rebels trying to topple him. Damascus denies responsibility for the incident.

Benchmark Brent crude for October settlement rose 63c to $114.96 a barrel on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London on Tuesday. In New York, West Texas Intermediate crude rose after Israel’s missile test provoked war jitters in the Middle East, source of about 35% of the world’s oil output.

The Arab League said on Tuesday a ministerial delegation would meet Mr Kerry in Rome on Sunday to discuss the present peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Reuters, Bloomberg