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Defense

Washington Gets Closer to a Strike on Syria

A major Senate hearing and big statements from Congressional leaders point toward an attack. But Americans are still wary.

Secretary of State John Kerry flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

From Speaker Boehner and Eric Cantor to John Kerry and John McCain, here's what you need to know about a long day in Washington.

Today's Highlights:

The latest from the Senate hearing.

 

New poll: Americans still largely oppose a strike.

Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor support authorization.

Majority Whip, Mitch McConnell not ready to commit.

The Senate Foreign Relations Hearing

Rand Paul Asks: Will the President Abide By This Vote? (5:44)

Rand Paul said he was proud Obama "was my president" when Obama decided to go to ask Congress. But he's worried that the Congressional vote will be disregarded if the resolution is declined. "I want to be proud of the president, but every time I get just about there, I get worried that he doesn't really mean it," Paul said. Kerry said he did not know what the president would decide in that case, other than that he's confident in the yes vote.

Paul questioned how effective an attack on Syria would be, given the questionable "rationality" of Assad. "I don't think we can say that by attacking them, he's not going to launch another chemical attack," Paul said. Kerry said that if the U.S. doesn't respond, "it's a guarantee" that there will be another chemical attack. 

Kerry tells Paul: "I can make it crystal clear to you that Israel will be less safe unless the U.S. takes this action." Israel, however, may not be pleased that Kerry is using concern over a Syrian chemical attack on the country to gain congressional support for military action. "We don't need America to take care of threats to Israel," officials told Israel's Channel 2 news Monday night.

Will Russia Get Involved? (5:34)

The U.S. is not the only military power with a presence in the region. Russia is a key ally of the Assad regime, and has held the position that there is no definitive proof that the chemical attacks took place by the regime's orders. So, what happens if the U.S. strikes Syria? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said he was not concerned.

"There's already four Russian warships in the eastern Med," Dempsey said. "And they are staying a respectful distance, I don't see that as a factor."

"Teresa, I apologize for what I'm about to do to John" -- Senator John McCain's questions (5:05)

Senator McCain began with a jab at the very prospect of deliberating over whether to strike, saying "it is ridiculous to think that it is not wise from a military standpoint to advise the enemy you're going to attack." To this, Secretary Kerry said he didn't disagree. But he said, regardless, that leaks to newspapers already gave the Assad regime word of a possible attacks.

McCain later asked about the consequences of rejecting the resolution. "Doesn't it send a seriously bad message to our friends and allies, encourage our enemies and despair at our friends, particularly those fighting in Syria?" he asked. Kerry responded, saying this decision was crucial for all of the United States' relationships in the region.

I cannot emphasize enough how much they are looking to us now, making judgments about us for the long term, and how critical the choice we make here will be—not just to the question of Syria—but to the support we may or may not anticipate in the Mideast peace process, to the future of Egypt, to the transformation of the Middle East, to the stability of the region and other interest that we have.

 

There is no way to separate one thing from all of the rest. Relationships are relationships. They are integrated and that is why this is so important.

Why Wait on Congress for a Strike? (4:52)

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., took issue with why the Obama administration would wait for a strike, and burn time on a strike by going to Congress for authorization. In response, Secretary Kerry said that "it's somewhat surprising to me that a member of Congress...is going to question the president fulfilling the vision of the Founding Fathers" by going to Congress. Kerry said that "we're not losing anything by waiting, and I personally think there are advantages." Those advantages, as Kerry sees them, include being able to consult Congress and get support from the international community. Kerry emphasized that waiting and going to Congress doesn't hurt the mission to degrade Assad's chemical weapons systems.

Kerry did, however, say that he believed that if there was to be another chemical attack, he thinks that the current process would be sped up.

How Many Opposition Fighters Are There in Syria?

When pressed by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Secretary John Kerry gave some estimated numbers about opposition fighters in Syria. There are "up to 100,000" people "in total opposition, "tens of thousands" of which are "operative, active combatants," Kerry said. In terms of extremists, like militants tied to al-Nusra, Kerry said the numbers were "actually lower than former expectations," and that the Syrian people want to remain secular, as they have been historically.

Sen. Marco Rubio: Bashar al-Assad Is "An Anti-American Supporter of Terrorism"

Marco Rubio, in his opening questions/statement bashed the Obama administration for "leading from behind" on Syria and not taking stronger action earlier. The senator said "this is what happens when we ignore the world...[problems] only get worse and more difficult to solve."

Rubio also warned that if the U.S. doesn't take more action in the world, there may be "an Egyptian bomb" one day.

John Kerry: "Boots on the Ground" May or May Not Be On a Table

In response to a question from Sen. Menendez, Secretary Kerry got a bit dizzying on whether or not the U.S. would rule out putting troops on the ground in Syria: 

I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as is the secretary of defense and the chairman, but in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of somebody else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French, and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

Sen. Bob Corker called the answer on boots-on-the-ground "not very appropriate." In response to that, Kerry said "let's shut that door now," saying that he was only raising a hypothetical.

Defense Secretary Hagel: "The Risk of Chemical Weapons Prolieration Poses a Direct Threat"

In his prepared testimony, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that Syria's use of chemical weapons could spill over to other countries in the region, and pave the way for groups like Hezbollah to use them. He said:

The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons poses grave risks to our friends and partners along Syria's borders –including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them. This risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners, and to U.S. personnel in the region. We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist group determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use chemical weapons.

Secretary of State Kerry: "Only the Most Willful Desire to Avoid Reality Can Assert...That the Regime Did Not Do It." 

In his opening remarks, Secretary John Kerry continued his verbal assault on Syria's Bashar al-Assad, calling him a "dictator." He said:

We're here, because against multiple warnings from the president of the United States, from the Congress, from our friends and allies around the world, even from Russia and Iran, the Assad regime, and only undeniably the Assad regime, unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against his own citizens.

Kerry also asserted that the administration has "undeniable" evidence that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attacks. "We know these things beyond a reasonable doubt that is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives," he said. "This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line."

"Let me be clear. President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said. There will be no boots on the ground, he said. The Obama administration, according to the secretary of state, is just looking for a way to deter the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. 

The secretary didn't shy away from the comparisons some are making to the authorization of force in Iraq. Kerry told the committee that the administration did not want to repeat a Congressional vote based on "faulty" intelligence, and that the administration has declassified an "unprecedented amount" of information. 

Kerry voted yes for the use of force in 2003. Which he later said was a mistake.

Sen. Bob Menendez: "The World Cannot Ignore the Inhumanity and Horror of This Act"

Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday that he will support a resolution that will give President Obama the authority to strike Syria following alleged chemicals weapons use.

Menendez, who voted against the war in the Iraq and has been in favor of the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, said, "The world cannot ignore the inhumanity and horror of this act," affirming that he would support "the use of military force in the face of this horrific crime against humanity."

"The decision rests with us," the New Jersey Democrat said in his opening statement on Tuesday. "It is not political. It is a policy decision that must be based on what we believe is in the national security interest of the United States."

In his opening statement, Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, asked for the witnesses to bring "clarity" to the situation in Syria, and specifically pushed on how the U.S. plans to help the Syrian opposition.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are set to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the coming minutes. More to come.

Poll: Americans Still Largely Oppose a Strike

Americans do not agree with the Obama administration's argument that a military strike on Syria is in the best interest of the United States.

According to separate polling from the Pew Research Center (48 percent to 29 percent) and from the Washington Postand ABC News (59 percent to 36 percent) show that the American people oppose a strike on Syria in retaliation for alleged use of chemical weapons. The latter poll shows that support for a strike dramatically rises to 46 percent if the U.S. were to strike with the support of other international allies, like the British or the French. Additionally, opposition to arming rebel fighters remains high, sitting at 70 percent, according to The Post/ABC poll.

Assad Using Human Shields, Moving Weapons in Anticipation of Attack:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is hiding military equipment and removing troops into civilian areas ahead of a potential remote strike by U.S. military, the AP reports:

The main Western-backed opposition group says that during the buildup last week to what seemed like an imminent U.S. attack, the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons into residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide. Three Damascus residents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed such movements.

...

A U.S. official confirmed there are indications that the Syrian regime is taking steps to move some of its military equipment and bolster protection for defense facilities.

Nancy Pelosi: Use of Force 'Is In Our National Interest"

The House Minority leader sent a letter to congressional Democrats Tuesday afternoon, calling the prevention of chemical weapons use "a core pillar of our national security." You can read the full letter here.

Big Names in Congress Still Not Convinced

Tuesday morning with support from Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor, but they still don't have a full GOP leadership sweep.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that he's not "there yet" on a decision on Syria. He did say that the White House meeting was "very productive," but that he still has "some concerns and questions that I need answered."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not speak with other Congressional leaders following the White House meeting. After the meeting, the senator issued a brief, non-committal statement:

I appreciate the President's briefing today at the White House and would encourage him to continue updating the American people. While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done—and can be accomplished—in Syria and the region.

The other senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, is a probable no vote.

Major Republicans aren't the only members of Congress on the fence. Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said on Tuesday they would draft new language that would put limits on the president's ability to strike Syria, saying the administration's original resolution was left too open, The Washington Post reports. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and other senators also said there should be further limits on Obama, which would require new language.

On the other hand, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, gave strong support Tuesday:

While recognizing that the details of the authorization language have yet to be finalized, the use of chemical weapons, including against innocent children, is intolerable and cannot go unanswered.

Looking to Constituents for Answers

As Washington gears up for the big afternoon hearing, members of Congress, like Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., are gauging the opinions of their constituents about a possible U.S. military strike. Following a classified briefing with administration officials on Sunday, Amash remained unswayed. The people within his district, he says in a message to House GOP leadership, widely disagree with Obama's plan to seek congressional approval for an attack.

Amash's reports from his tour jibe with recent surveys of the general public on Syria. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from last month, 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the country should not intervene in Syria, while 9 percent said President Obama should take action. However, in a CNN/ORC poll this spring, 66 percent said the U.S. would be "justified" in using military force if the administration presented convincing evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its citizens.

In an NBC poll conducted at the end of August, just 50 percent of Americans supported a missile strike. That's more support than Rep. Amash is seeing among his constituents, but it's hardly a strong public call for action.

CNN: Sen. Harry Reid "Confident" Senate Will Pass Authorization

This is according to a tweet from Dana Bash:

The Tuesday Morning White House Meeting

The White House managed to get a strong wave of support for the authorization of force in Syria following meetings at the White House this morning. Some of those reactions are below.

Americans, by a large majority, believe that the president should be required to seek approval from Congress before launching a strike, which is the path that the president has decided to take. But it's not like Americans are currently inclined to just agree with whatever Congressional leadership says. Congress, after all, as an approval rating of just 14 percent in a recent Gallup poll

President Obama: "We Will Be Stronger If We Take Action Together."

Video of the president's statement from this morning's White House meeting on Syria.

The president also got some unusual support away from Congress:

Boehner: "I'm Going to Support the President's Call for Action" 

After a meeting at the White House with President Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and other congressional leaders, Speaker Boehner told reporters that "I believe my colleagues should support the president's call for action." Boehner said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria "is not to be tolerated" and has to be "responded to."

Following the meeting, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., tweeted his support:

Cantor's support is obviously crucial to Boehner, helping to present a unified front in Republican House leadership before a vote that could be a major test of the speaker's leadership.

Cantor's backing could also play a major role in moving Republican votes. After all, Boehner's advocacy hasn't always been a sure path to votes. His threats to strip Congress members' committee assignments couldn't save a stopgap spending bill in late 2011, which fell through due to a lack of Republican support. This summer, Boehner couldn't pull together enough votes to pass a farm bill due to Tea Party opposition. Tea Party forces have been dominating the budget conversation in the House this year, and will likely fight Boehner on Syria.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: "The Intelligence is Clear that Assad Perpetrated This Attack of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Rep. Pelosi, D-Calif., came out in support for the authorization of force following the White House meeting. "President Obama did no draw the red line" on chemical weapons, Pelosi said. "Humanity drew it decades ago."

She concluded: "This is behavior outside the circle of civilized human behavior. And we must respond."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: This Meeting "One of the Best I've Ever Been To."

After the Congressional meeting at the White House, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that the "discussion was appropriate" and that "my hope is that members left this meeting with a great sense of purpose "-- to get an authorization of force passed in both houses of Congress. Following Feinstein, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., called the meeting the "most effective bipartisan meeting since I've been in Congress." 

Rep. Ruppersberger has been in Congress since 2003.

Vice President Joe Biden Will Be Sticking Around D.C.

The vice president is putting off a scheduled trip to Florida this week to focus on Syria and help the White House's push for congressional authorization. President Obama, meanwhile, leaves Washington Tuesday night for a trip to Sweden, and then Russia for the G20 summit.

This isn't the first time Biden has been set-up for a key role on an issue close to the White House. It hasn't always worked.

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