Biggest Problem for Syria Resolution: ‘What Happens Next?’

Billy House And Michael Catalini, National Journal
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Billy House and Michael Catalini, National Journal
Sept. 5, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

It’s com­plic­ated. It’s un­pre­dict­able. Not un­like the lo­gist­ics of ac­tu­ally tak­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia.

The ex­act word­ing of an au­thor­iz­ing res­ol­u­tion has emerged as a com­plex hitch in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cam­paign to con­vince Con­gress to send a war-weary na­tion in­to an­oth­er mil­it­ary ac­tion. Much of the de­bate turns on pre­cise le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage, and at least one un­answer­able ques­tion: What will hap­pen after a strike?

Like al­most everything else dur­ing this con­gres­sion­al ses­sion, even if one cham­ber reaches con­sensus on how to amend Pres­id­ent Obama’s ini­tial war-powers pro­pos­al, there is no cer­tainty the oth­er cham­ber will simply ad­opt the same lan­guage. In this case, the Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate will likely go first. The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day ad­vanced a ver­sion of a res­ol­u­tion to the full Sen­ate, which is ex­pec­ted to de­bate the meas­ure on the floor next week when law­makers re­turn.

But the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House may well head down its own path. House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce, R-Cal­if., and oth­ers on his pan­el openly pondered the con­tents of a pos­sible House bill on Wed­nes­day dur­ing the cham­ber’s first pub­lic hear­ing in­to ac­tion against Syr­ia. Some have even ques­tioned wheth­er the House will even take up the is­sue.

Whatever hap­pens, a U.S. at­tack on the re­gime of Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad in re­tali­ation for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons still faces op­pos­i­tion from law­makers on both the left and the right.

The Sen­ate res­ol­u­tion, for ex­ample, passed in a tight 10-7 com­mit­tee vote that blurred party lines. Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., voted “present.” Three Re­pub­lic­ans—For­eign Re­la­tions rank­ing mem­ber Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee and Sens. John Mc­Cain and Jeff Flake, both of Ari­zona—joined the ma­jor­ity in back­ing the meas­ure. Sens. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., voted with five com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans against the meas­ure.

“This is a tightly tailored au­thor­iz­a­tion,” For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., pro­nounced of the fi­nal product. But Wed­nes­day’s de­bate and vote in the Sen­ate com­mit­tee laid bare the yawn­ing polit­ic­al di­vide with­in both parties.

One hurdle was Mc­Cain’s ob­jec­tion to an ab­sence of mus­cu­lar lan­guage in the Men­en­dez-Cork­er ver­sion of the res­ol­u­tion re­leased late Tues­day that Mc­Cain said he and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., were as­sured would be in the meas­ure. Mc­Cain told re­port­ers he wanted the policy to de­grade As­sad’s chem­ic­al-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, in­crease sup­port to res­ist­ance forces, and swing “bat­tle­field mo­mentum” away from the dic­tat­or.

Even­tu­ally Mc­Cain got his way, with the com­mit­tee ap­prov­ing his amend­ment by voice vote. “There is no strategy without that, ex­cept for sig­ni­fic­ant at­tack­ing of fa­cil­it­ies that de­liv­er chem­ic­al weapons,” Mc­Cain said.

In the House, “right now, we’re watch­ing what the Sen­ate does,” one seni­or lead­er­ship aide said on Wed­nes­day. But when the House re­turns next week, the aide said, there are two primary op­tions: Seek a vote on whatever res­ol­u­tion the Sen­ate passes or pur­sue ac­tion on a sep­ar­ate, House-writ­ten ver­sion. Either way, lead­er­ship aides in the House have pre­dicted an up­hill battle for pas­sage.

Moreover, Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en, R-Fla., men­tioned dur­ing the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing that there are ru­mors the House won’t vote on any res­ol­u­tion. Pressed later about that, a spokes­man for Ros-Le­htin­en re­spon­ded in an e-mail, “Ileana says mem­bers have shared the ru­mor with her that the Sen­ate would vote but that the House might not. It is someone else’s ru­mor. She doesn’t have any more back­ground.”

The lead­er­ship aide did not pan the idea that the House could with­hold ac­tion, but also would not con­firm that the op­tion was be­ing ser­i­ously con­sidered. The aide did point out that one-cham­ber pas­sage—or even just ap­prov­al of a less­er, “sense of Con­gress” res­ol­u­tion—would not carry the of­fi­cial weight of full con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion.

Mi­chael O’Han­lon, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion fo­cus­ing on de­fense and for­eign policy is­sues, says the point may be moot, since “Obama could strike Syr­ia without any con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al at all.”

Fur­ther­more, O’Han­lon said, no mat­ter what Con­gress does, the real test fa­cing the ad­min­is­tra­tion “is how ef­fect­ive any op­er­a­tion proves—and how lim­ited it man­ages—to re­main. Those out­comes will de­term­ine the pub­lic re­ac­tion more than any­thing.”

Out­side of the com­mit­tee ac­tion, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., has said the U.S. should act in Syr­ia; the views of Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., are not as clearly defined. Asked on Wed­nes­day wheth­er Mc­Con­nell would sup­port the res­ol­u­tion passed in com­mit­tee, an aide poin­ted to Mc­Con­nell’s com­ments from Tues­day call­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to share more in­form­a­tion with the pub­lic and Con­gress.

Sen­ate lead­ers also at­ten­ded a closed-door brief­ing with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. Fur­ther clas­si­fied brief­ings will con­tin­ue all week, the aide said, with a bicam­er­al brief­ing on Thursday and a Sen­ate-only meet­ing set for Fri­day.

Over in the House, Royce and oth­er mem­bers of the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee were rais­ing their own con­cerns about the po­ten­tial rami­fic­a­tions of a strike.

Testi­fy­ing be­fore the House pan­el as they had Tues­day be­fore the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey con­tin­ued to press law­makers Wed­nes­day for au­thor­iz­a­tion to use lim­ited mil­it­ary force.

“We are not ask­ing Amer­ica to go to war,” Kerry said at one point, seek­ing to de­flect ques­tions about the po­ten­tial es­cal­a­tion of hos­til­it­ies if the United States uses force.

“We all agree there will be no Amer­ic­an boots on the ground … we have no in­ten­tion of as­sum­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity for As­sad’s civil war,” Kerry said. But De­mp­sey later ap­peared less than thrilled about hav­ing to dis­cuss ef­forts to im­pose lim­its on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s time frame for the op­er­a­tion. Sen­ate and House draft pro­pos­als would lim­it it to 60 days.

“Mil­it­ar­ily, the broad­er the res­ol­u­tion, the more op­tions [it] can provide,” De­mp­sey curtly re­spon­ded at one point. He then re­minded law­makers that as part of the ori­gin­al pro­pos­al from the White House, “The pres­id­ent gave quite clear guid­ance that this will be a lim­ited and fo­cused op­er­a­tion, not an open-ended op­er­a­tion.”

Later, some law­makers ques­tioned wheth­er a House res­ol­u­tion should have some type of trig­ger word­ing al­low­ing for ad­di­tion­al re­sponses if As­sad were to use chem­ic­al weapons again. Also dis­cussed was wheth­er a pro­vi­sion should also be in­cluded to ex­pli­citly lim­it any ac­tion to pun­ish­ment for the use of chem­ic­al weapons—and to im­pact the bal­ance of power in Syr­ia’s on­go­ing con­flict.

Royce noted from the start of the hear­ing that Con­gress has ac­ted sev­er­al times in his­tory to au­thor­ize a pres­id­ent to use force. But, he said, “One thing dif­fer­ent here is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­pos­al sup­ports a U.S. mil­it­ary re­sponse against a coun­try in civil war. Need­less to say, this com­plic­ates the con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Royce also as­ser­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Syr­ia policy “doesn’t build con­fid­ence” and has been adrift “for over two years.” Al­though the pro­posed ac­tion aims to up­hold an in­ter­na­tion­al norm against the use of chem­ic­al weapons, Royce said he is troubled by the “un­for­tu­nate lack of in­ter­na­tion­al sup­port … there is no United Na­tions res­ol­u­tion of sup­port—nor NATO back­ing.”

He ac­know­ledged that the pres­id­ent has prom­ised a mil­it­ary op­er­a­tion would be lim­ited in scope and dur­a­tion. But he ques­tioned wheth­er that could be cer­tain. “That’s par­tic­u­larly true if Pres­id­ent Obama isn’t aim­ing to change the situ­ation on the ground,” said Royce. “What are the chances of es­cal­a­tion? Are dif­fer­ent scen­ari­os ac­coun­ted for? If our cred­ib­il­ity is on the line, as is ar­gued, what if As­sad re­tali­ates?”

But Obama had sup­port­ers in the room, too. “I strongly agree with Pres­id­ent Obama that the United States must re­spond to this flag­rant vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law with a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike,” said Rep. Eli­ot En­gel, D-N.Y., the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat. “We’re talk­ing about the cred­ib­il­ity of Amer­ica as a glob­al power.”

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