WASHINGTON -- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution Wednesday granting President Obama limited authority to launch a military strike on Syria in response to its reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Acting hours after Obama, during a visit to Sweden, said the credibility of Congress and the international community was also at stake, the committee voted 10 to 7, with one member voting “present,” to approve using force against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The resolution now goes to the full Senate. The House is separately considering a similar resolution.
The Senate panel acted after top administration officials pressed their case Wednesday for congressional approval of a U.S. military strike, even if lawmakers would support only a more limited authorization than the administration originally wanted.
In a news conference in Stockholm, the first leg of a trip that will take him to Russia for a Group of 20 summit, Obama made the case for a U.S. strike on Syria “limited in time and in scope” to degrade Assad’s military capabilities and deter him from resorting to chemical weapons again in his brutal war, now in its third year, against rebels seeking his ouster.
“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama said in response to a question. “The world set a red line” when it declared chemical weapons “abhorrent” and passed a treaty forbidding them. “Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.”
After classified, closed-doors hearings Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began debating a new draft of a resolution on the use of force in Syria in response to a reported chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people.
But the hearing to mark up the resolution was delayed for more than two hours amid disagreements among senators over its wording. Among those opposed to the Senate committee’s draft was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading GOP voice on national security issues, who wants broader U.S. action against Syria, the Associated Press reported.
The Senate committee’s version, released late Tuesday by a bipartisan group of senators, would permit up to 90 days of military action against the Syrian government and bar the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Syria, while allowing a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency. The White House also would be required within 30 days of enactment of the resolution to send lawmakers a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria.
Opening a hearing Wednesday afternoon to consider amendments to the resolution, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was “tightly tailored” to give the president the necessary authority but “does not authorize” the use of U.S. ground troops in Syria. The committee subsequently rejected, by a 14-4 vote, an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have imposed further restrictions by invoking provisions of the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
Paul denied that he plans to filibuster the resolution on the Senate floor, saying a report to that effect was a news media “misrepresentation.”
The committee later approved a McCain amendment aimed at strengthening the moderate rebel groups fighting Assad.
In the news conference in Sweden, Obama said in making the case for military action: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
Appearing before reporters with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, Obama said: “I do think that we have to act. Because if we don’t, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity. And those international norms begin to erode. And other despots and authoritarian regimes can . . . say, that’s something we can get away with. And that then calls into question other international norms and laws of war, and whether those are going to be enforced.”
Asked by a Swedish reporter about “the moral force of nonviolence” and the dilemma of being a Nobel Peace Prize laureate while preparing to attack Syria, Obama reiterated that he was “certainly unworthy” of the prize compared to previous recipients and asked “what are our responsibilities” in confronting a world “full of violence and occasional evil.” He argued that when 1,400 innocent civilians, including 400 children, are gassed to death in a war that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives, “the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.”
“I would much rather spend my time talking about how every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how I can prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas,” Obama continued. But as U.S. president, “I can’t avoid those questions, because as much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is, what is the United States going to do about it?”
In response to a question about dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, Obama said he has tried to convince Putin that a political transition is essential in that country because Assad cannot regain legitimacy after killing so many of his own people. Putin so far “has rejected that logic,” Obama said. But he said he “will continue to engage” the Russian leader and remains “hopeful” that he will change his mind.
Putin, however, had harsh words Wednesday for the United States, warning Washington in an Associated Press interview against launching a military strike against Syria, Russia’s only ally in the Middle East.
He also said Congress has no right to authorize the use of force against Syria without a U.N. Security Council resolution and that doing so would be an “act of aggression,” Reuters news agency reported.
Putin accused Secretary of State John F. Kerry of “lying” to Congress about the role of al-Qaeda in the Syrian civil war. In a Kremlin meeting of his human rights council, he said of administration officials at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday: “They lie beautifully, of course. . . . A congressman asks Mr Kerry: ‘Is al-Qaeda there?’ He says: ‘No, I am telling you responsibly that it is not.’ ” Putin continued, according to Reuters: “Al-Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this. It was unpleasant and surprising for me. . . . We proceed from the assumption that they are decent people. But he is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.”
Asked during the hearing whether it was “basically true” that the Syrian opposition has become more infiltrated by al-Qaeda, Kerry said: “No, that is actually basically not true. It’s basically incorrect.”
Kerry returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to brief senators in secret and to testify in a public hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kerry said in the House hearing that more nations are supporting a U.S. strike against Syria than the Pentagon says are needed.
He warned that if Congress fails to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force, the ability of the moderate Syrian opposition to restrain extremists will “dissipate immediately,” resulting in “more extremism and greater problems down the road.”
Later, Kerry disputed an assertion by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) that “radical Islamists” now make up the “majority” of the Syrian rebel forces. Kerry said there are 70,000 to 100,000 “oppositionists” in Syria and that 15 to 25 percent might belong to groups deemed to be “bad guys” among the rebel forces.
“There is a real, moderate opposition that exists,” Kerry said.
As he testified, protesters from the antiwar group Code Pink held up red-stained hands in the audience behind Kerry in silent opposition to a U.S. strike.
Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, said proposed use-of-force resolutions in the House are “looking at a short time frame” for U.S. action, as on the Senate side.
“It’s very clear on the House side that there is no support for boots on the ground,” Royce said.
Asked by Royce for the military view of a more restrictive resolution than originally offered by the administration, Dempsey said that “militarily, the broader the resolution, the more options I can provide.” But he added that Obama “has given me quite clear guidance that this will be a limited and focused operation, not an open-ended operation.”
Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey told senators Tuesday that a military strike against Syria would “degrade” the country’s ability to carry out attacks — the most specific military objective they have laid out yet — but faced sharp questions about whether such an operation would accomplish much.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry and Hagel struggled at times to frame a proposed military strike on Syria as tough enough to be worthwhile but limited enough to guarantee that the United States would not get dragged into another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East. Nonetheless, they assured lawmakers that the administration was not asking for congressional backing to “go to war,” as Kerry put it.
“Our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks and deter it from further use of chemical weapons,” Hagel said.
Kerry said such a strike would have a “downstream” effect of limiting Assad’s conventional military capacity. Dempsey said his goal would be to leave the regime weaker after any assault.
“On this issue, that is the use of chemical weapons, I find a clear linkage to our national security interest,” said Dempsey, who has long been skeptical of the wisdom of military intervention in Syria. “And we will find a way to make our use of force effective.”
Over and over, officials from Obama on down have stressed that a strike on Syria would be a narrow and direct response to an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held or contested areas on the outskirts of Damascus.
The debate has turned from weighing the Syrian government’s culpability in the attack to weighing the merits of inserting the U.S. military into the country’s civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Syrian civilians have died in the violence, and U.S. officials said any military action is not intended to tilt the balance of power in favor of rebels fighting the Assad regime.
Obama has said that he believes he has the authority to act even without lawmakers’ approval but that the United States “will be stronger” if Congress endorses action in Syria. On Tuesday, he asked for a quick vote when all lawmakers return to Washington next week.
The proposed military action “does not involve boots on the ground,” Obama said, welcoming key lawmakers to the White House for a meeting. “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.”
Obama also gained the backing of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said through a spokesman Tuesday that she “supports the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons.”
Republican and Democratic leaders expressed strong support for the proposed strike. After meeting with Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters: “I’m going to support the president’s call for action. I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action.”
But even as the House leadership backed the president, support for even a brief military assault remained thin among some rank-and-file members of the chamber.
To address congressional qualms that airstrikes could lead to broader, open-ended military operation, Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) said they are drafting a resolution that would sharply limit the authority that lawmakers would give Obama and the scope of such an attack.