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Putin plans Russian delegation to sway Congress on Syria strike

MOSCOWPresident Vladimir Putin hopes to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.

Russian legislators Valentina Matvienko and Sergei Naryshkin proposed that to Putin, saying polls have shown little support among Americans for armed intervention in Syria to punish President Bashar Assad's regime for an alleged chemical weapons attack.

The lawmakers said maybe U.S. legislators can be persuaded to take a "balanced stance" on the issue. Putin supported the initiative, which would require formal approval by the Foreign Ministry.

Syrian official: "Middle East is already on fire"

In an interview with CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer Monday, Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad called President Barack Obama's request for congressional approval appropriate -- even after aSyrian state-run newspaper Sunday mocked the decision as "the start of the historic American retreat."

"The Middle East is already on fire now," Mekdad said. "And we think any wisdom in the United States -- and we hope the Congress will exercise this wisdom -- will not allow the United States to tarnish its image once again in wars in the Middle East."

Proponents of military action in the United States Congress, though, are warning their colleagues that voting against authorization could have dangerous implications.

McCain: Congressional vote on Syria strike "problematic"

"The consequences of the Congress of the United States overriding a decision of the president of the United States of this magnitude are really very, very serious," Republican Sen. John McCain said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday.

"And already we're sending a bad signal to Iran, to North Korea, to Bashar Assad."

The U.S. said it has proof Assad's regime was behind the Aug. 21 attacks Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children in a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. A declassified French intelligence report released Monday echoed the assertion, saying forces loyal to Assad carried out a "massive and coordinated" chemical attack, according to Reuters.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed evidence of the alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime as "absolutely unconvincing."

He said the evidence presented by the U.S. to Moscow showed "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.

In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro published Monday, Assad also questioned the evidence implicating his regime in chemical attacks, saying President Obama and French President Francois Hollande have been "incapable" of providing "a single piece of proof."

Russia has sent legislators to the U.S. before to try to persuade Congress about pending legislation. But sending a delegation to Washington to discuss Syria's civil war could be seen as a publicity stunt, given the strong positions Moscow already has taken as a key ally of Assad's regime.

Putin said a dialogue between legislators of the two countries was an essential part of reviving Russian-American relations.

In July 2012, a delegation of Russian legislators traveled to Washington in an unsuccessful bid to prevent Congress from passing sanctions against 18 Russians as part of a law named after Sergei Magnitsky. The whistleblowing Russian lawyer was arrested in 2008 for tax evasion after accusing Russian police officials of stealing $230 million in tax rebates.

That visit by legislators from Russia's parliament - which often rubber-stamps Putin's edicts - was later justified as the private initiative of a handful of Russian legislators, not an official government delegation.

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