House Republicans peppered President Barack Obama’s Syria policy with criticism today while most stopped short of saying they would oppose his request to authorize a military strike of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
A hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee produced skeptical questioning as well as qualified endorsements of Obama’s plan by some of the Republicans who control the panel. Its chairman told Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the president’s policies contributed to the Syrian crisis.
“The administration’s Syria policy doesn’t build confidence,” Representative Ed Royce of California, the chairman, said. “For over two years, U.S. policy has been adrift.”
Without announcing a position on authorizing a military strike, Royce said, “There are no easy answers. Syria and much of the Middle East are a mess.”
The committee spent four hours probing the benefits and risks of Obama’s plan to strike Syria in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. The evidence shows “beyond reasonable doubt” that Assad’s forces were responsible, Kerry said.
While the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution today authorizing military strikes, Obama faces a tougher lobbying campaign in the House, where a Republican majority consistently opposes the president and some Democrats are speaking out against military action.
The sharpest exchange was between Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Kerry.
“The administration has a serious credibility issue with the American people due to the unanswered questions surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi almost a year ago,” Duncan said, referring to the assault on a U.S. mission in Libya that killed four Americans.
“The American people deserve answers before we move forward talking about military involvement in Syria,” Duncan said.
Duncan’s remarks drew a rebuke from Kerry. “I am not gonna sit here and be told by you that I don’t have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this,” Kerry said. “We’re talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi.”
A more collegial tone predominated at the hearing, and several Republicans said they supported a strike.
“If we can stand up and say that chemical weapons have no place in this world, and we can do something about it, God help us if we don’t,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a former Air Force pilot who served in Iraq.
The U.S. maintained two no-fly zones over Iraq in the 1990s “because of our disdain for chemical weapons,” Kinzinger said. “Most people would have agreed that what we did over northern and southern Iraq was the right thing to do because Saddam Hussein gassed his own residents.”
The House panel’s former chairman, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, said the U.S. must act against Assad.
While faulting the administration for not seeking sanctions on Assad earlier, Ros-Lehtinen said a refusal to take military action “would be seen as a green light by the Iranian regime” to continue its nuclear program, which the U.S. says is aimed at building a bomb.
By contrast, Republican Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania said he wouldn’t back military action. “Soldiers coming home deformed and limbless and even in a body bag is not acceptable to me, and therefore I cannot and will not vote for this intervention into Syria,” Marino said.
Rejecting that argument, Kerry said any strike would be limited to degrading Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.
“We are not asking America to go to war,” Kerry said in his opening testimony. “We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The president has made crystal clear, we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Assad’s civil war.”
Royce raised questions about the the complications of a strike against Assad’s regime in the midst of a civil war.
“What are the chances of escalation?” Royce asked. “Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line now, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates?”
Royce said he also was troubled by a lack of international support. “Although the proposed action aims to uphold an international norm, there is no United Nations resolution of support,” he said. “Nor NATO backing.”
Kerry said at least 10 countries, which he didn’t name, have expressed a willingness to participate in military action. “We’ve got more volunteers than we could use for this kind of operation,” he said.
Democrats, too, offered mixed reactions to the administration’s plan.
“This is nothing more than a fight for control between two sectarian factions,” said Representative Brian Higgins of New York.
“The American people are sick and tired of war,” he said. “It’s time to nation-build.”
The committee’s top Democrat, New York Representative Eliot Engel, endorsed Obama’s call for military action, while cautioning against a resolution that would give the administration “a blank check.”
A draft House resolution by two Democrats, Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Gerald Connolly of Virginia, would impose a 60-day limit on any military strike and “excludes the authority to deploy United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria except with respect to efforts to rescue United States personnel.”
Kerry, asked about a 60-day limit, said he would prefer a resolution that allows additional actions if Assad later uses chemical weapons again.
Kerry also said Syrian military forces have begun defecting, estimating there were 60 to 100 defections from Assad’s ranks “in the last day or so.”
Asked if the U.S. risked provoking Russia to retaliate for any strike on Syria, its longtime ally, Kerry said top Russian officials have made clear they have no intention of starting a war with the U.S. over Syria.
While Russia sent ships to the Mediterranean, where the U.S. has four destroyers, “their ships are kind of staying out of the way,” Kerry said.
Almost six in 10 Americans oppose the U.S. conducting unilateral missile strikes against Syria, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. The opposition drops to 51 percent if U.S. allies participate. Seventy percent oppose supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels.
“There are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks with inaction,” Hagel said at the hearing, warning that Assad’s forces may “carry out even more devastating chemical weapons attacks.”
Assad has warned that a military strike by the U.S. risks igniting a wider conflagration.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes,” Assad told the French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview published Sept. 2. “Chaos and extremism would ensue. There is a risk of regional war.”
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Bob Drummond, Larry Liebert
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