Republicans Want a Syria Plan From Trump

Key foreign policy Republicans on the Hill supported Thursday’s strike, but they want to hear more about what happens next.

Sen. John McCain speaks to reporters following a briefing on Syria Friday.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
April 7, 2017, 4:38 p.m.

Leading Republican lawmakers on foreign policy were quick to applaud President Trump for authorizing a military strike against the Syrian government. Now they want a fully formed strategy from the White House to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

In response to a chemical attack earlier this week that killed dozens of civilians, the U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase late Thursday, the type of action hawkish GOP senators in Washington have advocated in the past to deter Assad’s regime. But after facing years of resistance from the Obama administration, they hope this is only phase one of a long-term plan.

“I told him I was very proud of the fact that he acted,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, recalling the conversation he had with Trump after the strikes were carried out. “We’re no longer leading from behind. He did the right thing. But it’s got to be the first step in what’s going to be a very long journey.”

Throughout the six-year Syrian civil war, Graham and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain have pushed for a more aggressive policy towards Assad. The two both reiterated their calls Friday for the U.S. to help ground the Syrian government’s air force, arm rebel forces, and destroy ISIS, which they argue would ultimately create enough pressure to remove Assad.

Graham also said the U.S should send between 5,000 and 6,000 ground troops to Syria to help retake the city of Raqqa, which he said would help improve participation from surrounding countries in the region. McCain said he did not think additional troops were necessary.

Even though Graham and McCain have frequently clashed with Trump, who campaigned on a much more noninterventionist vision, the president spoke with both men by phone Thursday night.

“He’s going to make the adjustments he needs to protect the country,” Graham said. “And I don’t think he’s bound by ideology. I think he’s embracing the new reality.”

Neither Graham nor McCain thought Trump was required to seek congressional approval for the missile strikes he ordered, but they said they’d be open to voting for an Authorization for Use of Military Force if Trump takes further action, as long as its scope was broad enough.

“I’m for an AUMF for anything. But there’s never been agreement because the Democrats want to micromanage the commander in chief,” McCain said. “I’ve had hours and hours of discussions. There’s always micromanagement.”

Like Graham and McCain, Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the ultimate goal in Syria should be twofold: dislodging Assad from power and defeating radical jihadists. Unlike Graham, however, Rubio said Friday morning on CBS that Assad should be removed by Syrians, not foreign forces.

Rubio also introduced legislation Friday with a bipartisan group of five other senators intended to hold Assad accountable for any war crimes he commits.

As for an AUMF, Rubio said he would support one that gives the president the general authority to fight terrorism abroad, but not one that limits the specific groups or areas the U.S. plans to attack “because you’ve just telegraphed to the terror groups where they need to go hide.” While Rubio said the Trump administration has been taking input on a larger strategy toward Syria, it is not yet complete.

“You’d love to have one yesterday and the day before. We’d like to have one already,” Rubio said. “But I’d rather them design it correctly than not.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who’s had a closer relationship with Trump than Graham, McCain, or Rubio have had, was not as quick to push the president for a long-term Syria strategy. Corker stressed that the missile strikes, which he called a “transformational moment” in Trump’s presidency, were the only step the administration had planned so far. Because of that, Corker said, “there’s no point in an AUMF today.

“Something happened. We responded. Now let’s see what next happens,” Corker said. “You can’t give input unless you know that next step.”

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said he viewed the missile strike as a one-time event for the time being. But he added that he’d be open to looking at an AUMF in Syria “if the president feels like he needs it.

“I think this strike was related to the use of chemical weapons only,” McConnell said at a press conference. “I don’t necessarily read into that a larger strategy in the area.”

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