Obama Officials Make Case for Syria Strikes Before Senate

Secretary of State John Kerry warns senators against the consequences of inaction.

American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11
American defense secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Committee on Armed Services in Washington DC, April 11 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

America’s top national-security officials appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday to argue for military action against Syria after the regime of President Bashar Assad there was accused two weeks ago of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

Secretary of State John Kerry advocated intervention in passionate terms, saying “humanity’s red line” had been crossed when Assad used poison gas, referring to President Barack Obama’s warning last year that the use of chemical weapons on the regime’s part would trigger an international response.

Facing questions from Tennessee Republican Bob Corker about the United States’ interests in Syria, Kerry told the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee that the proliferation of chemical weapons use in the Middle East would inevitably harm America and its allies. “We cannot overlook the impact of chemical weapons and the danger that they pose to a particularly volatile area of the world in which we’ve been deeply invested for years,” he said.

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel later raised the possibility of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, which fights on the side of Assad’s army, acquiring chemical weapons and using them against Israel.

Kerry downplayed the risk of Russian retaliation in response to questions from Idaho Republican Jim Risch, saying Russia had no “ideological” but only a “geopolitical” interest in sustaining Assad’s regime.

Russia wants Assad to stay in power not only because it maintains a naval base in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus and sells weapons to his regime, however. It fears that a successful Sunni uprising in Syria will embolden Islamist separatists in its own Caucasus region while President Vladimir Putin’s government is altogether opposed to Western nations meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The objective of a military operation, Kerry suggested, is to “help the opposition” and “avoid the creation of a safe haven in Syria, or a base of operations for extremists, to use these weapons against our friends.” He did not explain how the air- or missile strikes that President Obama is reportedly considering — which Kerry insisted would not amount to going to war — would accomplish that goal and ruled out the possibility of deploying ground forces to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war.

General Martin Dempsey, America’s top military officer, also didn’t directly address Florida Republican Marco Rubio’s concern that Assad might actually be emboldened if the United States attempt to degrade his ability to use chemical weapons. If Assad used poison gas when he felt the rebellion threatened his survival, wouldn’t possibly tilting the balance of the civil war in the insurgents’ favor by attacking his regime exacerbate such a fear, he wondered.

Kerry did warn against the consequences of inaction. “If you’re Assad,” he asked, “or if you’re any one of the other despots in that region, and the United States steps back from this moment together with our other allies and friends — what is the message?”

Hagel elaborated that inaction in Syria could “undermine America’s other security commitments. The word of the United States must mean something,” he said.

President Barack Obama called for a punitive expedition against Syria on Saturday but wants Congress’ approval before initiating hostilities.

While the president is expected to get approval from the Senate, where his own party is in the majority, a vote in the House of Representatives might turn out only narrowly in favor of military action. Democratic and Republican Party leaders in the body, including House speaker John Boehner, support the president but dozens of pacifist Democrats and noninterventionist Republicans, weary after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, could turn down the administration’s request.