- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Congress is increasingly resisting the administration’s case for limited military strikes against the Syrian government, though sentiment is growing on Capitol Hill that President Obama can — and must — find a way to do more to arm moderate rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Mr. Obama said he is still pondering his options a week after the opposition accused the Syrian regime of launching a chemical weapons attack on civilians in a suburb of Damascus and backed up the claim with powerful photos of dead children laid shoulder to shoulder in white shrouds.

With the U.S. hitting a dead end in seeking U.N. authorization, Mr. Obama appears ready to act outside the purview of the international body, which might mean not waiting on the results of an investigation by a team of U.N. inspectors looking into the attack.

SEE ALSO: Obama hits pause on U.S. action in face of crippling cyber strikes from Syria, Iran

The administration appears to be laying the groundwork for limited strikes, possibly targeting the regime’s chemical weapons facilities, and a White House official said they will brief key members of Congress on Thursday about where they stand.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who earlier this week was on the Syria-Jordan border to review the situation, said the president has squandered the best window for action and given the Syrian regime time to move assets.

“We’ve warned them we’re going to strike — it’s the stupidest thing in the world if we are going to strike weapons caches or systems, the last thing you want to do is warn them,” said Mr. Hunter, who served tours of duty as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan before winning his seat in Congress.

SEE ALSO: Boehner tells Obama to make case for Syria strikes

Others on Capitol Hill are concerned that the White House is moving too hastily. A growing number of lawmakers say that before any U.S. military action is taken, the president needs to make a full case to Congress and to a public grown weary of war and entanglements in the Middle East.

“Before the United States commits troops on the ground or decides on the use of force in Syria, the president needs to convene Congress and make the case to the American people,” said Rep. John B. Larson, Connecticut Democrat.

Even as the administration is working the phones with foreign leaders, Mr. Larson said, it should be talking more with Congress.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said there are no clear national security interests at stake in Syria and warned against picking sides in the conflict.

Case to the public

Congressional leaders are taking a more nuanced stand, with members of their parties in both camps.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a letter to Mr. Obama Wednesday evening that U.S. national security is tied to the situation in Syria but Mr. Obama hasn’t done enough to make that case to the public — or to explain U.S. options.

His letter posed 14 questions for the president to answer. Although the administration’s “outreach” to members of Congress to talk over strategy is welcomed, he said, the effort has not been the “substantive consultation” required before U.S. military forces are committed.

“After spending the last 12 years fighting those who seek to harm our fellow citizens, our interests, and our allies, we all have a greater appreciation of what it means for our country to enter into conflict,” Mr. Boehner said. “It will take that public support and congressional will to sustain the administration’s efforts, and our military, as well as their families, deserve to have the confidence that we collectively have their backs — and a thorough strategy in place.”

A senior administration official said they are still working through their assessment.

“Once our intelligence community has made a formal assessment, we will provide the classified assessment to the Congress, and we will make unclassified details available to the public. I expect that will occur sometime this week,” the official said.

Even as questions grow over the potential for strikes, there was an emerging sentiment that the U.S. can do more to arm the opposition forces fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad. Until now, American officials were worried that they couldn’t distinguish between moderates and Islamic extremists in the rebellion, but several key lawmakers said this week that the situation has changed.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has said he supports military action. He also said there is “no substitute for training and equipping the moderate opposition in Syria.”

Indeed, arming the rebels appeared to bridge some of the other divides on U.S. military action. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was more reluctant to embrace a U.S. strike but, like Mr. Engel, said arming the rebels could leave the U.S. with more influence in a post-Assad government. Mr. Smith just finished a visit to the Syria-Jordan border with Mr. Hunter.

Iran’s ‘mini-Vietnam’

Mr. Hunter said strikes still could have military value but the best answer at this point is to show allies in the region such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. is committed by helping them arm moderate rebels fighting to topple Mr. Assad.

That’s a reversal for Mr. Hunter, who until this trip was opposed to helping provide arms for the conflict. He said he has become convinced, by American intelligence, military operators and allies in the region, that it is possible to target aid to moderate rebels and make sure those resources don’t fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. In particular, he said, those regional allies have a strong motive to make sure the aid goes to non-radicals.

“What it would do is train a group of opposition folks to take Damascus and hold it after Assad is removed or leaves, and that could be in six months or two years. This is a long-term deal,” he said, adding that the goal is to make sure there is a force capable of denying al Qaeda or Hezbollah a foothold in Syria in a post-Assad period.

He also said anything that could force Iran to have to spend more money to prop up Syria is welcome and that the conflict there has become “like a mini-Vietnam for Iran.”

U.N. stalemate

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, though, took a dim view of outsiders arming either side in the conflict. He said it would only lead to more bloodshed. Instead, he begged for other countries to allow more time for the U.N. inspectors already in the country to look for chemical weapons use.

“The military logic has given us a country on the verge of total destruction, a region in chaos and a global threat. Why add more fuel to the fire?” he said.

Meanwhile, the British government floated a draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that would give international blessing to retaliate against Syria.

Russia, which has backed Syria in the conflict, signaled that it would object, so the resolution does not appear to be headed for a final vote. In the wake of that discussion, the State Department said it has given up hope for a solution out of the U.N.

“I don’t think there’s any secret about where the Russians stand on Syria in the Security Council,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “So it’s not like anybody’s hiding anything here. We just, at this point, don’t think it’s the proper course of action.”

Mr. Obama told PBS’ “Newshour” program Wednesday that he hasn’t made a decision on what to do.

“I have gotten options from our military,” he said. “I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria. But we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.”

U.S. officials told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that the Navy is increasing the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region from one to two by keeping the USS Nimitz in the Indian Ocean instead of sailing back to the U.S.

Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Ja’afari said he wouldn’t be surprised if his government had already moved key assets to new locations following the U.S. threat of action.

“We are in a state of war right now, preparing ourselves for the worst scenario. What would you ask a government in this situation to do?” he said.

He also said his government has asked the international organization to look into whether rebels used poison gas in attacks on government troops in the days after last week’s incident.

The U.S. says Syrian forces used chemical agents in an artillery attack in the Damascus suburbs Aug. 21. The Syrian government denies that and at one point accused the rebels of using gas in the attack. On Wednesday, however, Mr. Ja’afari asked the U.N. to look into three other incidents he said involved rebels’ use of poison gas — but he did not list that one.

The Obama administration says the Syrian government likely has erased evidence of the attack, one reason the U.S. won’t be beholden to the conclusions reached by the U.N. investigators.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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