Congress Scrambles to Adapt to Russian Proposal on Syria

Both the Senate and the House are revising but not abandoning their plans for authorizing force in light of the emerging compromise on Syria. It's the stick the president insists is responsible for the carrot of compromise.

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Both the Senate and the House are revising, but not abandoning, their plans for authorizing the use of force in Syria in light of the emerging compromise on its chemical weapons. It's the stick President Obama insists is responsible for the carrot of compromise — but the effort still faces a great deal of opposition from both parties.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsy, made their third collective appearance before a congressional committee on Tuesday morning. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, the group made the same points: We must defend the standard prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. This is vital to our troops; it is vital to our allies in the Middle East who are "just a strong wind" away from being injured by these attacks.

"Let me assure you," Kerry said, "the president of the United States didn't just wake up one day and flippantly say, 'Let's take military action in Syria.' He didn't choose this." It was Assad, he said, that forced the issue. Kerry also recognized the politics at hand. "I know what you're all hearing. The instant reaction of Americans all over the country is 'Woah! We don't want to go to war again!' … I get it."

Kerry reiterated the need for authorization in order for the compromise he awkwardly introduced on Monday, after discussing it with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week (and who he was scheduled to speak with after the hearing on Tuesday). Citing an old saying — "nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of hanging" — Kerry argued that authorization was needed in order to keep Russia and Syria interested in coming to the negotiating table. He also offered support for a new round of peace talks in Geneva, saying: "We don't believe there is any military solution to what is happening in Syria. But make no mistake: No political solution will be achievable as long as Assad believes he can gas his way out of this situation."

How long authorization might be needed is unclear. "We're waiting for that proposal" from the international community, Kerry said, "but we're not waiting for long."

Update, 11:30 a.m.: A moment of contention: Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida pressed Kerry on why Syria, with its chemical weapons, demanded action while North Korea, which also has the weapons, doesn't. Kerry began to answer, slowly, when Miller jumped back in to press him for an answer. Kerry, angry, asked, "You don't really want answers, do you?" Miller replied that he was limited on time and reminded Kerry that, "this is not the Senate; we do not filibuster here."

On the other side of the Capitol, a group of senior Senate leaders began revising the authorization for the use of force that its Foreign Relations Committee passed last week. As Politico reports, the group includes hawks like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Robert Menendez of New Jersey who chairs that committee.

The broad outlines of the plan would call for the United Nations to pass a resolution asserting that Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria used chemical weapons in the country’s ongoing civil war. A UN team would be required to remove the chemical weapons within a specified timeframe. If the weapons were unable to be removed within that timetable, then the United States would be authorized to use military force against the country, the source said Tuesday. The timeline is still being hammered out by the group.

McCain, for his part, isn't terribly excited about the compromise plan. Speaking to CBS This Morning, as reported by Politico:

I’m very skeptical, and we should be since Bashar Assad has refused to acknowledge that he even has chemical weapons. I think the best test right away would be the Syrian acceptance of international monitors to go to these chemical weapons sites and get them under control immediately. … If he’s serious, then let the monitors in there right away.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, facing an outspoken conservative primary opponent, finally offered his opinion on Syria on Tuesday. Like that opponent, McConnell is opposed, Yahoo reports.

The president also still faces skepticism from the left. In an opinion piece at The Guardian on Tuesday, California Rep. Barbara Lee defended her proposal to block the ability to use force in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

Strikes against Syrian military targets not only have the risk of direct civilian casualties – sometimes, in war, callously called "collateral damage" – but will not deter the Assad regime from its continued assault against his own people. Many experts agree that these strikes would do more harm than good, and could lead the US deeper and deeper into the complex Syrian civil war, which 60% of Americans oppose. The path forward is clear: we must support forceful diplomacy, not military force.

In one respect, Lee's proposal goes further than the administration, calling for a Syrian war crimes tribunal.

How Lee's proposal fares in the House isn't clear — nor is it obvious what the Senate's final proposal will look like, or how any votes will come together. For the president, though, the political tide has turned. He's operating from a position of much greater strength than on Monday. Kerry suggested that the administration won't wait long for a compromise to be hammered out, but it is probably willing to wait long enough for Congress to, at last, sign on in support.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.