Posted by on September 03, 2013 in Blog

The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians on August 21, 2013, that claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Syrians, including over 400 children, brought a strong rebuke from President Obama, who had previously called the use of weapons of mass destruction a “red line.” In response to Syria’s crossing that line, Obama called for U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing on a proposed “Authorization of Use of Force in Syria,” and heard testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. They made the Obama Administration’s case for military strikes and addressed questions from lawmakers, assuring them that the Administration’s intent for authorization of force in Syria is limited in scope. A similar hearing is expected in the House tomorrow. There were also classified briefings with Members of Congress during Labor Day weekend.

Last week, there were a handful of Congressional sign-on letters from Members of Congress calling on the President to seek Congressional authorization before taking action on Syria, including letters by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Scott Rigell (R-VA), John Garamendi (D-CA), and Rob Woodall (R-GA). Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) circulated a letter stating that if the President intends to engage U.S. forces in Syria without Congressional authorization, he will introduce a “concurrent resolution that would require the President to remove our forces within 7 days after its adoption.”  

After announcing he would seek Congressional authorization for U.S. strikes, President Obama and Administration officials have been lobbying aggressively to get support for intervention, with help from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s main pro-Israel lobby. While Obama has sought Congressional authorization for strikes against the Syrian regime, the President sent lawmakers this weekend a draft Resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. Lawmakers are expected to offer a number of amendments to the Resolution, which is broad in scope and problematic in the current draft in three areas: 1) it does not prohibit ground troops, 2) it is not limited in duration, and 3) it is not geographically limited to Syria. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who supports a targeted effort in Syria, expressed concern over the breadth of the Resolution and circulated a letter to colleagues this weekend encouraging amendments to explicitly state that the Resolution does not “authorize ground action.” President Obama says the intent for military strikes is to “hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”      

In his opening statement during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who is a known hawk on Iran and in the “do it now, already” caucus on Syria, was fear mongering and stressed that the issue of authorization for the use of military strike in Syria is not just about Syria but about sending a message to the world about international and national security, and went further by asserting that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was an indirect threat to our national security. Administration officials and proponents of U.S. military strikes in Syria use similar talking points that “this attack is an assault on human dignity,” or “presents a serious danger to our national security,” and “endangers our friends,” namely Israel. 

Sen. Menendez went further by saying that if the U.S. doesn’t act on Syria, Israel will think “we don’t have their back.” Senator Boxer (D-CA), another supporter of military action said, “America’s credibility is on the line” and if the U.S. doesn’t respond, it will be seen as a “paper tiger” by the international community. And though the President and Sec. Kerry have reiterated that this is not a war, Kerry in his remarks threatened that should Assad retaliate after a U.S. strike, the U.S. will be more than able to make him regret his actions. How is this not an inference of a potential of escalation in hostilities and a full-fledged war? And if the U.S. strikes are intended to be limited in duration and scope, why the need for the broad-based scope of the Resolution sent to lawmakers?   

Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT), who is skeptical of a greater U.S. role in the two and a half year conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, said he “struggle[s] with this” and questioned whether the Administration will use this Resolution to respond to reprisals and how the U.S. will in fact respond in the event of a “ferocious chemical or conventional weapons” attack by Assad in response to the U.S. military strikes. Sen. Murphy’s thoughtful questions and cautious approach to the issue is critical to this debate, and his colleagues would do well to follow his lead.

Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI), a Syrian-American and Chair of the House Liberty Caucus, has been vehemently opposed to military intervention in Syria and has created the Twitter hashtag #VetsOnSyria calling for input from veterans of our Armed Forces who oppose U.S. strikes in Syria. He has met with countless constituents during eleven scheduled visits in his Congressional district this week to hear their thoughts on proposed U.S. strikes in Syria. After a classified briefing with Administration officials this weekend, Amash tweeted and called it “disturbing & disgusting to hear Obama admn & some Members of Congress suggest U.S. should attack #Syria if only to “send a message” to Iran” and called it “immoral” to attack one country just to send a message to another.  John Garamendi (D-CA), who also opposes intervention in Syria, posted an update on Facebook asking his constituents their thoughts on Syria.      

While the Administration is lobbying for support and using messaging that is likely to resonate with lawmakers, Kerry made a rather ridiculous statement during the hearing that “the Mullahs are watching us,” a clear reference to Iran’s regime, and suggested that a “no” vote on the Resolution is a vote for Iran. One of the leading arguments used by the Administration, AIPAC, and proponents of U.S. strikes in Syria is that this will deter Iran and North Korea from using nuclear weapons, and will make it clear that the use of weapons of mass destruction is against international norms and its usage will not go unpunished. This is simply not a strong argument to wage war or conduct any sort of military strikes against another nation simply to send a message to another country. The Administration needs to explicitly state if the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people is a direct threat to our national security (which we can all agree that it’s not) and whether the U.S. is going to conduct strikes in Syria because the Administration has a clear strategy in tipping the scale in favor of the Syrian opposition and to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people by conducting a humanitarian intervention. But President Obama has clearly stated that the proposed strikes in Syria are to be "limited in duration and scope" and not intended to topple the regime, to assist the Syrian opposition, or to put an end to the bloodshed and death by conventional weapons that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands- then what are our objectives? And are the limited strikes worth it knowing that it may in fact escalate hostilities?  

While it is commendable that the President decided to seek Congressional authorization before a military strike against Syria, it’s unlikely that he would have made the decision to seek authorization if he didn’t believe he had the votes to get the Resolution passed. Sec. Kerry said Obama’s national security team “was not contemplating” a defeat and does not “believe the Congress of the United States will turn its back at this moment.” 

In a discussion earlier today, a Senate staffer said it’s likely that the Senate will strongly support the Resolution while emphasizing that his boss, a progressive, is undecided and will consult with experts on the issue who will make the case for supporting or opposing U.S. military action in Syria.  

While the House leadership has come out in support of a U.S. strike, it’s still unclear whether the Resolution will pass the House as the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is split on the issue with co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) supporting strikes against Syria while co-chair Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) opposes an attack on Syria. What’s clear, however, is that the majority of Americans oppose U.S. intervention in Syria. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the Resolution on Wednesday while full debate and vote on the issue in the Senate is next week. The House plans on debating the issue when it’s back in session on September 9. 




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