Obama's plan for Syria intervention faces tough examination at the Capitol
Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 6:22AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 4, 2013 10:04AM EDT
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration faces a tough examination of its plans for military strikes in Syria on Wednesday as the debate moves into the opposition-controlled House of Representatives, where the significant support the proposal has received in the Senate will be harder to find.
With President Barack Obama in Europe, his top national security aides were facing public and private hearings at the Capitol to argue for Congress' authorization for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. That's in retaliation for what the administration says was a deadly sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee could vote on authorizing the use of force as early as Wednesday, the first in a series of votes as the president's request makes its way through Senate and House committees before coming before the two chambers for a final vote.
The Senate panel's top members drafted a resolution late Tuesday that permits Obama to order a "limited and tailored" military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn't exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations.
"We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez.
The White House had no immediate reaction to the Senate measure. Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying earlier before the committee, signalled that the troop restriction was acceptable.
Now the administration needs to persuade a Republican-dominated House of Representatives has opposed almost everything on Obama's agenda since the party seized the majority more than three years ago.
The top opposition Republican in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, has signalled key support. He emerged from a meeting at the White House on Tuesday and declared that the U.S. has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behaviour."
The administration says 1,429 people died from the gas attack on Aug. 21. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists in Syria, says its toll has reached 502. Assad's government blames the episode on the rebels. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country last week.
Obama on Saturday unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
On Wednesday, Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, will try to make their case in a public hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They and other senior administration officials also will provide classified briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
But even supporters of military action urged Obama to do more to sell his plans to an American public that is highly skeptical after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the next few days, however, the president is out of the country, first in Sweden and later at a G-20 economic summit in Russia.
Obama is expected to find little international support for action right now. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike.
The United Nations secretary-general on Tuesday warned that any "punitive" strike on Syria would be illegal without a sound case for self-defence or the approval of the Security Council, where Syria ally Russia has used its veto power to block action against Assad's regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria but also said Russia "doesn't exclude" supporting a UN resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Putin expressed hope that he and Obama would have serious discussions about Syria and other issues at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week.
Obama has already cancelled a one-on-one meeting in Moscow with Putin amid tensions over Russia's granting of asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.