Strike Against Syria Still an Option, Key Lawmakers Are Told

People take part in a protest calling for no military attack on Syria from the U.S., Britain or France, outside the Houses of Parliament, in London, organized by the Stop the War coalition and timed to coincide with a debate and vote by politicians, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Britain's leaders said Thursday it would be legal under humanitarian doctrine to launch a military strike against Syria even without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the legal conditions have been met for taking action against Syria for allegedly launching a chemical attack against civilians in a Damascus suburb last week. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
Aug. 29, 2013, 4:13 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama has not ruled out a lim­ited strike against Syr­ia, des­pite rising con­gres­sion­al re­luct­ance and the re­fus­al by Great Bri­tain’s Par­lia­ment to be part of a mil­it­ary en­gage­ment, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials told con­gres­sion­al lead­ers Thursday.

“The of­fi­cials made clear that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus is on pre­vent­ing [Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad] from us­ing chem­ic­al weapons again,” said an aide to a law­maker who was on a brief­ing call. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion is fig­ur­ing out the best way to do that, and is seek­ing as much in­ter­na­tion­al sup­port as pos­sible, but won’t let that dic­tate what our policy will be.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice, and Joint Chiefs Vice Chair­man James Win­nefeld, briefed con­gres­sion­al lead­ers and the chairs and rank­ing mem­bers of na­tion­al se­cur­ity com­mit­tees in an un­clas­si­fied tele­phone con­fer­ence late Thursday, the aide said. Law­makers on the call said the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials laid out the op­tions cur­rently be­ing con­sidered.

Rep. Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger, D-Md., the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Per­man­ent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, offered an un­der­ly­ing sen­ti­ment that was echoed by oth­ers: that the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment must be held ac­count­able and stopped from us­ing the weapons again. Rup­pers­ber­ger also said that he agreed with Obama “that Amer­ic­an boots on the ground is not a vi­able op­tion.”

However, Rup­pers­ber­ger also said that, in his view, the United State must be care­ful in how it pro­ceeds, and that it must act to­geth­er with a co­ali­tion of coun­tries. “The United States can­not be the lone sher­iff of the whole world,” he said.

At the same time, Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., is openly press­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to take ac­tion. Pelosi said in a state­ment that, dur­ing the call, she ex­pressed sup­port for a “meas­ured, tar­geted and lim­ited ap­proach the pres­id­ent may be con­sid­er­ing.

“It is clear the Amer­ic­an people are weary of war,” Pelosi said in the state­ment. “However, As­sad gass­ing his own people is an is­sue of our na­tion­al se­cur­ity, re­gion­al sta­bil­ity and glob­al se­cur­ity. We must be clear that the United States re­jects the use of chem­ic­al weapons by As­sad or any oth­er re­gime.” Pelosi also said she agrees with Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and oth­er law­makers who stated dur­ing the call the ad­min­is­tra­tion should con­sult more with Con­gress.

Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., called for giv­ing “leth­al aid to vet­ted ele­ments of the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion” while United Na­tions in­spect­ors com­pleted their work, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from his of­fice. He also called for “lim­ited, tar­geted strikes” in Syr­ia.

The White House brief­ing comes after the ad­min­is­tra­tion as­ser­ted that As­sad, whose coun­try has been roiled in civil war for more than two years, crossed a “red line” by us­ing chem­ic­al weapons against ci­vil­ians. But there are grow­ing calls on Cap­it­ol Hill to al­low the U.N. in­spect­ors time to fin­ish their in­vest­ig­a­tion and re­port back what they’ve found.

White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est said earli­er Thursday that the pres­id­ent was still con­tem­plat­ing his re­sponse and that the tele­phone brief­ing was neither the first nor the last con­sulta­tion with Con­gress.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion suffered an ap­par­ent set­back on Thursday when the Brit­ish Par­lia­ment de­feated Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on’s mo­tion to au­thor­ize strikes on Syr­ia. Camer­on was viewed as a likely ally against the As­sad re­gime.

Asked wheth­er the U.S. would strike Syr­ia alone, Earn­est said he would not spec­u­late, but that in­ter­na­tion­al norms were im­port­ant.

“The pres­id­ent did ac­know­ledge “¦ the role that in­ter­na­tion­al law would play as he as­sesses an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse, and that is a factor that has been con­sidered among all these oth­er things that have gone in­to mak­ing this de­cision,” he said.

Sen­ate Demo­crats opened up on Thursday as well, after stay­ing mostly quiet on the sub­ject. For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., said in an in­ter­view with CBS that he wants to “send a glob­al mes­sage that the use of chem­ic­al weapons “¦ is something that can­not stand.” Sen. Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., warned against wait­ing too long be­fore sanc­tion­ing the Syr­i­an re­gime, say­ing that chem­ic­al weapons could be used against U.S. troops.

“We’ve got troops in the re­gion,” Ca­sey said in an in­ter­view with MS­N­BC. “We’ve got troops that are po­ten­tially ex­posed, and we know that two en­emies — the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion Hezbol­lah and the Ir­a­ni­an re­gime — are con­fed­er­ated with Mr. As­sad, and they plot every day.”

Men­en­dez, who par­ti­cip­ated in the call, said he be­lieves that un­der the law the pres­id­ent has the abil­ity to go ahead with his plans, but that if the ac­tion went bey­ond 60 days, he would need to come be­fore Con­gress for ap­prov­al.

The War Powers Act calls for the pres­id­ent to in­form Con­gress with­in 48 hours after mil­it­ary ac­tion takes place, if Con­gress did not au­thor­ize it. Ac­cord­ing to the law, if Con­gress does not take ac­tion after 60 days — either by de­clar­ing war or ex­tend­ing that peri­od — the ad­min­is­tra­tion must cease its use of the armed forces.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he wants the ad­min­is­tra­tion to seek a con­gres­sion­al vote on ac­tion in Syr­ia, sug­gest­ing a dif­fer­ence between his po­s­i­tion and Men­en­dez’s. “We shouldn’t ask people to fight war un­less they know that they’ve got the full weight of our polit­ic­al lead­er­ship be­hind them,” Kaine said in an in­ter­view on CNN.

Earli­er Thursday, Boehner spoke with Obama on the status of the de­lib­er­a­tions over Syr­ia. Dur­ing the call, the speak­er echoed con­cerns he raised in a let­ter Wed­nes­day to the pres­id­ent, in­clud­ing ques­tions about the leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for a mil­it­ary strike, ac­cord­ing to an aide. Pelosi spoke to the pres­id­ent on Wed­nes­day.

Some law­makers — in­clud­ing Rep. Dav­id Sch­weikert, R-Ar­iz. — have sug­ges­ted that lib­er­al, an­ti­war Demo­crats aren’t be­ing as open about chal­len­ging Obama as they were when the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion pondered go­ing to war in Ir­aq.

But in fact, 53 Demo­crats, in a joint let­ter on Thursday, be­came the latest group of House mem­bers to pub­licly urge Obama to “seek an af­firm­at­ive de­cision of Con­gress pri­or to com­mit­ting any U.S. mil­it­ary en­gage­ment to this com­plex crisis.”

The let­ter, penned by Rep. Bar­bara Lee, D-Cal­if., also in­cluded some cau­tion­ary lan­guage: “While the on­go­ing hu­man rights vi­ol­a­tions and con­tin­ued loss of life are hor­rif­ic, they should not draw us in­to an un­wise war — es­pe­cially without ad­her­ing to our own con­sti­tu­tion­al re­quire­ments,” the let­ter states.

“We strongly sup­port the work with­in the United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to build in­ter­na­tion­al con­sensus con­demning the al­leged use of chem­ic­al weapons and pre­par­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse; we should also al­low the U.N. in­spect­ors the space and time ne­ces­sary to do their jobs.”

The let­ter from Demo­crats fol­lowed a bi­par­tis­an let­ter on Wed­nes­day to Obama signed by more than 100 mem­bers of Con­gress, mostly Re­pub­lic­ans, in­sist­ing it would be un­con­sti­tu­tion­al if con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion was not ob­tained pri­or to us­ing mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia. The num­ber of law­makers who had signed the let­ter by Thursday had swollen to 140, and it is still be­ing cir­cu­lated by Rep. Scott Ri­gell, R-Va.

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