U.S. Senators Voice Unease that Limited Syria Strikes May Embolden Assad

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 4, 2013, 8:02 a.m.

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.).

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