Syria war plan advances in Senate, pushes Obama to help rebels

Senators wrote a war plan Wednesday for retaliatory military strikes against Syria, narrowly winning committee approval for a bipartisan blueprint that would grant President Obama authority to bomb the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities.

The resolution limits Mr. Obama by giving him 90 days to act, but also goes beyond what he wanted by pushing him to take steps to help the rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad — language that was added Wednesday to win over the support of hawkish Republicans.


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Still, the White House said it accepted the resolution as a key show of support.

“We believe America is stronger when the president and Congress work together,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said after the vote, even though the resolution is significantly different from what Mr. Obama proposed during the weekend.

Traveling in Sweden, Mr. Obama said he would like to rally more international support behind his decision to punish Mr. Assad, but said he is prepared to act even if he has to stand alone. He also said he has the right to strike even if Congress votes against him.

The Senate resolution passed on a 10-7 vote, marking the first victory for Mr. Obama in what will be a long series of hurdles to get authorization from Congress. Still to come are a full Senate floor fight, likely next week, and then an even tougher battle in the House.

Cracks already are showing between the chambers. Senators are moving to broaden U.S. backing of the Syrian opposition, while House members are talking about limiting U.S. strikes beyond the Senate’s strictures.

The measure that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday gives Mr. Obama up to 90 days to strike at Syria’s ability to deploy or transfer chemical weapons.


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But in a twist, language was added to push him to take action that would lead to “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” between the rebels and the government.

Analysts said the resolution still gave Mr. Obama more latitude than lawmakers likely intended — including holes that could end up leading to American troops being deployed on the ground. The resolution specifically prohibits only “combat troops,” but that still could mean special operations troops for intelligence missions or search-and-rescue troops.

Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, tried to force the administration to abide by even stricter limits by proposing that the resolution allow only air and naval power to be used for attacks from outside Syrian territory.

But the committee turned down his proposal. Members said they felt they were intruding on Mr. Obama’s ability to fight.

“We start down this road, we are going to be running the campaign from here, and as smart as we are, I don’t think we are that smart,” said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former Navy pilot. He wanted to grant broad authority for Mr. Obama to strike Syria’s chemical weapons and to aid the rebels seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad.

Mr. McCain was one of three Republicans and seven Democrats who voted for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force resolution. Voting against it were five Republicans and two Democrats: Mr. Udall and Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut.

By pushing to arm Syrian rebels, Mr. Murphy said, the resolution forces the U.S. into deeper ties with one of the sides in the bloody, 2-year-old civil war. He said such a bond could end up drawing the U.S. into a full-scale war.

“I worry we have now committed ourselves to a level of support that will have to endure after the fall of Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

In the House, the administration was facing a tough audience in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

While some committee members expressed support or opposition, many more seemed to struggle with how to explain the administration’s policy to their constituents. Polls show far more voters disapprove of strikes than back them.

Rep. Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican who is on the committee but was traveling in the Middle East, released a statement saying the administration still lacks the votes to win approval in the House and he expects the lobbying to grow more intense in the next week.

“As it stands currently, President Obama does not have the votes to approve military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

The Obama administration says troops loyal to Mr. Assad used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, in attacks on a Damascus suburb Aug. 21.

Foreign leaders have said the death toll was lower. Syrian officials dispute the claim that they deployed chemical weapons and suggested the rebels used them to try to draw the U.S. into the war.

But members of Congress who attended classified intelligence briefings say the American case is true well beyond a reasonable doubt.

Instead, the conversation on Capitol Hill centers around whether strikes are an appropriate response to chemical weapons use; whether they will be effective; whether they invite further retaliation and risk an escalation; and whether an attack would force the U.S. deeper into the civil war.

“The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration, but the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. “That would be particularly true as President Obama isn’t aiming to change the situation on the ground. What are the chances of escalation? Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line now, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates?”

The House now will turn its attention to writing a resolution granting authority to use force in Syria, and several members said they will try to craft something tighter than the Senate version.

Analysts said the Senate language, which tries to limit Mr. Obama to act within 90 day, doesn’t slam the door shut if the president wants the military to stay longer — particularly if it is an operation similar to his bombing of Libya two years ago, when he said he didn’t need congressional permission because those weren’t “hostilities.”

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