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Kerry, Hagel to try to sell Congress on limited Syria strikes

September 03, 2013|By Paul Richter

WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials will face off with Congress on Tuesday afternoon over their request for authorization to carry out a military strike on Syria, facing powerful cross pressure from lawmakers in one camp who insist on a narrowly defined, limited mission and others who want to give the president a broader resolution that authorizes a more aggressive approach.

After three days of private consultations, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their first public questioning on the issue. A series of other hearings and private briefings will follow this week in a buildup to a vote that may take place as early as next week.

Most lawmakers in both Houses remain in the undecided column, weighing both the merits of the limited attack Obama seeks, but also the acute political risks they will take when they cast their vote.

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A vote against action could send a signal of U.S. passivity on the world stage, and could encourage Iran, disappoint U.S. allies, such as Israel, and show an American indifference to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, the White House argues. Democrats must also weigh whether they want to cast a "no" vote that would badly weaken their president in both world affairs and domestically, for the rest of his term.

Since Obama’s Saturday announcement that he wants to shore up his flagging support for the mission with a congressional blessing, the administration has faced competing demands from advocates for a limited mission and a broad one.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the Senate’s hawk faction, said after a meeting with Obama on Monday that he could vote yes, but only provided that Obama signs on to hit Assad’s military hard, and do more for the rebel opponents.

On the other side, lawmakers such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a House Intelligence Committee member, have warned that too broad a resolution could draw the U.S. into another Mideast war.

The White House’s proposed bill, as originally drafted, “is far too broad and open ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no-fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops,” Schiff said in statement Monday.

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Another sensitive issue that could sway Congress is how the administration intends to act if there were future chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, which has repeatedly denied using such weapons.

The administration has said it wants to strike Syria to reinforce a standard -- accepted around the world for almost a century -- against the use of chemical weapons. That suggests the White House would strike again if Assad unleashes another chemical attack as he allegedly did on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs using the neurotoxin sarin.

Kerry said as much in an appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Asked whether the U.S. planned repeat strikes, Kerry said that would depend on whether there were any future attacks.

Some experts, including some current and former Israeli officials, believe Assad now views use of gas as a regular part of his military operations, to be used when he can’t otherwise dislodge rebel fighters in strategic positions.

But the idea of repeated U.S. attacks may alarm anti-war Democrats, as well as the Republicans’ growing non-interventionist faction.


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