WASHINGTON -- Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike voiced concern on Tuesday that the limited military strikes President Obama has proposed taking against Syrian forces could embolden President Bashar Assad, who almost certainly would ride out any such attack.
The Capitol Hill appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey followed Obama’s Rose Garden announcement on Saturday that he would seek a congressional vote in support of selected attacks against Syrian chemical weapons-related targets.
The three national security leaders testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On Wednesday morning the panel was to hear classified testimony on the matter and then mark up a bipartisan resolution -- negotiated Tuesday evening -- that authorizes use of force in Syria, Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said.
The three administration national security leaders were slated to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at midday on Wednesday.
The Senate panel’s draft joint resolution explicitly rules out “boots on the ground,” a provision the Obama team has said it supports but did not include in the original draft text sent to Capitol Hill.
The text going into mark-up allows for “a limited and tailored” use of force against Syria’s chemical-related military assets, puts a 90-day cap on the authorization and includes several requirements for reporting back to Congress.
The U.S. intelligence community said in an unclassified report released last week that it has determined with “high confidence” that Assad’s military unleashed sarin nerve gas attacks on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people just outside of Damascus.
From the GOP perspective, perhaps the greatest worry is that pinprick salvos that fall short of dislodging the current government could give Assad new momentum in his two-and-a-half-year civil war. Several leading Republican voices are calling for a more ambitious attack that turns the tide in favor of Washington-backed opposition fighters.
What happens, asked Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, ‘Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won? And so now it's business as usual here.’”
The Syrian leader might be deterred from further chemical attacks, but thousands more could yet be killed by conventional means, driving untold numbers of additional refugees into neighboring nations, Risch said. To date the war has left more than 110,000 dead, according to estimates, and hundreds of thousands more have fled to Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
After three to six days of U.S. cruise missile strikes, Assad may be “further emboldened both domestically and perhaps even abroad,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at the hearing. “Have we taken into account what the implications could be of an Assad that could weather a limited strike and what that could mean for the long-term prospects of the conflict?”
“He will weather” U.S.-led strikes, Kerry responded, explaining that the proposed use of force is not aimed at overthrowing Assad but rather at punishing the regime for the gas attacks and attempting to deter any future chemical use. The attacks could include French military forces and additional support from some regional U.S. allies.
Obama “is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime,” said Kerry, who has eclipsed Hagel in becoming the administration’s point man on the Syria matter. “So [Assad] will be able to stand up, and no doubt he'll try to claim that somehow this is, you know, something positive for him.”
In the long run, though, the limited strikes could have “downstream” effects in harming Assad’s overall war-making capacity, he said, as well as triggering other useful developments.
“There is no way that it will, in fact, be beneficial for him, that it will not translate for him on the ground; that the defections that are taking place now and other things that will happen will further degrade his capacity to prosecute it going forward,” Kerry said.
Some in Obama’s own party share the concern about inadvertently strengthening Assad. In contrast to the view among some GOP lawmakers in favor of immediately expanding the scope of U.S. attack on Syria, many Democrats worry that a limited attack could draw the United States into much deeper -- and perhaps intractable -- involvement.
“I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step towards full-fledged war,” said Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), noting “we've been here before” when limited U.S. action to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 ultimately led to years of Pentagon involvement.
“After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?” Udall asked at the hearing. “How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vice grip Assad has on his power or allow rebels allied with al-Qaida to gain a stronger foothold in Syria?”
Kerry, a former Massachusetts lawmaker and Democratic chairman of the same Senate committee, acknowledged that it was “appropriate” to consider the “unintended consequences of action.”
“Some fear a retaliation that leads to a larger conflict,” the top diplomat said. “Well, let me put it bluntly: If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war.”
Dempsey said that the Defense Department has assembled not only a target list for initial strikes in Syria, but also “subsequent target sets, should they become necessary.”
Some lawmakers voiced worries that Russia, a longtime Assad ally, might help Syria retaliate against U.S.-led attacks.
Kerry said, though, that he has gathered through extensive diplomatic consultations that “Russia does not have an ideological commitment here. This is a geopolitical transactional commitment.”
In response to an anticipated heightening of U.S. direct support for anti-Assad rebels, Russia may sell more weapons to Syria “but it's not going to elicit some kind of major confrontation,” said the secretary of State.
Kerry also rejected the view, expressed by Udall and others, that the proposed action contributes to an unwelcome view of the United States as the world’s policeman.
“It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for,” Kerry said in an apparent reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling or use of these arms.
“And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn't help lead that effort, then shame on us,” he said. “Then we're not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interest.”
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans at Tuesday’s Senate hearing displayed party unanimity on the issue. On the GOP side, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian, said he opposed even a limited U.S. intervention in Syria.
And, most Democrats on the committee appeared to be lining up in support of the president. Menendez at yesterday’s hearing carried the administration banner, at one point comparing Assad to a schoolyard bully who needed to be taught a forceful lesson.
Meantime, the U.N. inspection team that was in Syria until Saturday investigating chemical attack allegations may take another three weeks or more to release its findings, Kerry told lawmakers.
Obama would not necessarily await that report, though, because Washington already is confident there is sufficient evidence implicating the Syrian military in last month’s attack, the secretary of State said.
Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked if the White House would proceed to attack Syria even if it fails to win congressional backing -- a legislative outcome that Paul called “unlikely.”
The president “intends to win the passage of the resolution,” Kerry responded. “We’re not contemplating [congressional defeat] because it’s too dire.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.).