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Late Tuesday afternoon, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unveiled their response to the Obama administration's initial proposal authorizing the use of force in Syria. Here, line-by-line, is how the two documents compare.

The rationalization

What Syria did

Administration | Senate

Whereas, on August 21, 2013, the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, killing more than 1,000 innocent Syrians;

Whereas these flagrant actions were in violation of international norms and the laws of war;

The largely ceremonial "whereas" stipulations that introduce each authorization document reflect the ways in which the two differ. The administration's version is terse, spare. The Senate's version is careful articulate in more detail the specific charges — like a prosecution laying out a case, not just issuing the charges.

The Senate version is also more attentive to the politics of the moment. The war in Syria has led to far more deaths than the 1,000-plus killed in the chemical weapons attack at issue, a toll that has been raised by some as equivalently important in an after to curb Syrian President Bashar al Assad's behavior.

What that action violates

Administration | Senate

Whereas the United States and 188 other countries comprising 98 percent of the world's population are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling or use of chemical weapons;

Whereas, in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, Congress found that Syria's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction threatens the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States;

Whereas the United Nations Security Council, in Resolution 1540 (2004), affirmed that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons constitutes a threat to international peace and security;

This section has more overlap between the two versions than any other part of the documents, primarily because it specifies why Assad's alleged action is a crime and a threat. The two versions are largely similar, though the Senate version includes the moral judgment of the Arab League and extends the list of international prohibitions as a means of enhancing the legitimacy of the action.

Why the United States must act

Administration | Senate

Whereas, the objective of the United States' use of military force in connection with this authorization should be to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction;

Whereas, the conflict in Syria will only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement, and Congress calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to participate urgently and constructively in the Geneva process; and

Whereas, unified action by the legislative and executive branches will send a clear signal of American resolve.

The only difference between these two versions is in the last line. The administration's version says, in effect: "We're in this together." The Senate's: "The President is allowed to do this." Which, for Obama, is probably better language, as it reinforces his argument that he could have struck Syria even without Congressional sign-off.

The authorization

The authorization itself

Administration | Senate

(a) Authorization. -- The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to --

(1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or

(2) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.

Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith, writing at LawfareBlog, outlines the differences between these versions.

[The Senate] language is narrower than the administration’s draft. It limits the use of force to “targets in Syria,” and has a more narrowly tailored purpose. It would not give congressional sanction to the use of force outside of Syria (in, for example, Iran or Lebanon). It would, however, authorize attacks on the Syrian command hierarchy in Syria, all the way up to Assad himself, as long as the President determined such attacks to be “necessary and appropriate” to respond to and deter and degrade Syrian WMDs.

Goldsmith goes on to note that the addition of the phrase "limited and tailored manner" is more aesthetic than anything. For opponents of any action, no limit is too low; for Senator John McCain, "limited" strikes might allow a fairly high number.

Determining necessity of use of force

Administration | Senate


The Senate, perhaps remembering the trouble in which the government found itself the last time weapons of mass destruction were used as a rationale for military action, is insisting that the administration offer as much proof as possible that the Assad government used chemical weapons and that there is no alternative but military action. And, of course, that there is a plan in place that will actually achieve the goal of deterrence.

War Powers Resolution requirements

Administration | Senate

(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements. --

(1) Specific Statutory Authorization. -- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

(2) Applicability of other requirements. -- Nothing in this joint resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

The War Powers Resolution, passed toward the end of the Vietnam War, was meant to ensure that a president couldn't take military action without involving Congress in the decision (albeit after the fact, in some instances). The resolution also stipulates time limits on action similar to those in the Senate's Section 4, below.

The limits

The administration's proposed document ends at this point. The Senate's continues with five additional sections.


The authority granted in section 2 does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.

Secretary of State John Kerry had a bit of trouble addressing this issue before the committee on Tuesday, so the Senate tried to be specific. That final caveat is an important one: Congress would not allow combat operations involving ground troops — but rescue missions for a downed pilot would be permitted, for example.

Goldsmith notes another carve-out that might allow:

Section 3 is probably written this way to capture the fact DOD Special Operations Forces are being used in Syria, or will be used there, for intelligence-related and other “preparation of the battlefield” tasks. (I imagine, but of course do not know, that this is a nod to operational reality, since DOD has probably already sent Special Operations Forces into Syria, under the President’s Article II power, to prepare the battlefield.)


The authorization in section 2(a) shall terminate 60 days after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, except that the President may extend, for a single period of 30 days, such authorization if –

(1) the President determines and certifies to Congress, not later than 5 days before the date of termination of the initial authorization, that the extension is necessary to fulfill the purposes of this resolution as defined by Section 2(a) due to extraordinary circumstances and for ongoing and impending military operations against Syria under section 2(a); and

(2) Congress does not enact into law, before the extension of authorization, a joint resolution disapproving the extension of the authorization for the additional 30 day period; provided that any such joint resolution shall be considered under the expedited procedures otherwise provided for concurrent resolutions of disapproval contained in section 7 of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1546).

Obama can use force in Syria for two months, maybe three, unless Congress rescinds or extends its permission. And if Obama wants an extension, he has to explain why.


Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall consult with Congress and submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives an integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned U.S. diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria, including:

(1) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States;

(2) the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian political opposition, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition;

(3) efforts to isolate extremist and terrorist groups in Syria to prevent their influence on the future transitional and permanent Syrian governments;

(4) coordination with allies and partners; and

(5) efforts to limit support from the Government of Iran and others for the Syrian regime.

The Senate wants to know specifics about what the administration is doing with its military authority, and, as above, its plan for meeting its stipulated goals. Which links to ...


(a) Notification and Provision of Information. Upon his determination to use the authority set forth in section 2 of this Act, the President shall notify Congress, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of the use of such authority and shall keep Congress fully and currently informed of the use of such authority.

(b) Reports. No fewer than 10 days after the initiation of military operations under the authority provided by Section 2, and every 20 days thereafter until the completion of military operations, the President shall submit to the Congress, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a report on the status of such operations, including progress achieved toward the objectives specified in Section 2(a), the financial costs of operations to date, and an assessment of the impact of the operations on the Syrian regime's chemical weapons capabilities and intentions.

Section 2(a) is the authorization section of the Senate's document. So, in other words, the Senate wants regular reports on how the strikes are fulfilling the stated authorization.


The authority set forth in Section 2 of this resolution shall not constitute an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war except to the extent that it authorizes military action under the conditions, for the specific purposes, and for the limited period of time set forth in this resolution.

Congress isn't approving war: it is merely agreeing to the president's desired use of force in Syria. As Goldsmith summarizes the Senate's authorization: "If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased."

Photo: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears testimony prior to unveiling its document. (AP)

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