WASHINGTON—The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light to military involvement in Syria on Wednesday as the White House took its “flood the zone” strategy back to Capitol Hill.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent Wednesday morning in a classified briefing with senators as a follow-up to Tuesday’s public hearing. The committee later voted 10-7-1—splitting both parties—to authorize the use of force in Syria for no more than 90 days and with no American ground troops.
The three Obama administration officials moved to the other side of the Capitol shortly after noon for a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which lasted more than four hours. The proceeding had a similar tone to Tuesday’s Senate hearing and included Kerry virtually repeating the same opening statement. In spite of the August recess, almost all of the 48 members of the committee were present.
Even before the House hearing, the top two House Republicans, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, announced their support for military strikes, boosting the drumbeat of war on Capitol Hill.
But Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., the No. 5 House Republican, came out against intervention in Syria, echoing what members of both parties have almost universally acknowledged: Their constituents are opposed to war in Syria.
“What can I tell my constituents about how these strikes are in the national interest?” Ami Bera, D-Calif., asked Hagel during the hearing.
“It’s clearly in the interest of our country, because as we have noted here today, the use of chemical weapons, if it becomes a norm … jeopardizes our country, our homeland, our troops, and our people all over the world,” Hagel responded.
The American people don’t appear to be buying that argument: A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday was the latest to show strong disapproval for military action in Syria. The survey found a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents opposed—and by double-digit margins.
Kerry said 100 percent of Americans should want to avoid war, but he guaranteed lawmakers they would face a much bigger problem in the near future if they fail to act. All three men acknowledged previous Syrian chemical weapons attacks, about 11 in number, but they said evidence was not as strong in the previous incidents. Kerry called last month’s sarin gas attack outside Damascus—which the U.S. government says killed more than 1,400 civilians—a “grotesque” larger event that demands action.
Kerry repeatedly said the president’s request “is not an effort to take over Syria’s civil war,” which led committee members to ask more question about what exactly the purpose is, given that U.S. policy is in favor of regime change in Syria. Kerry said the military action would not target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but instead degrade his ability to use chemical weapons.
“This isn’t about eliminating chemical weapons—that’s not possible,” Dempsey clarified. “The mission is to send a message to Assad that using chemical weapons is unacceptable.”
Several House members, including Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, asked about the large numbers of jihadists—McCaul estimated about 50 percent—fighting with Syrian opposition groups. He said his main concern is that any strikes against the Assad government, “as bad as it is,” would only embolden groups now made up mostly of radical Islamists.
Kerry acknowledged the Islamic militancy of some Syrian opposition groups but disputed the 50 percent number. He said risks exist, but there’s “no chance” to achieve a palatable end to the civil war—which has already claimed 100,000 lives—in Syria if the United States doesn’t act.
Most members of Congress appear open to authorizing military action, but the fate of the president’s request to launch a strike may hinge on whether they are willing to go against their constituents.