WASHINGTON – US lawmakers and foreign allies responded with surprise on Sunday
after President Barack Obama announced he would seek authorization from Congress
to use force against Syria.
Across party lines members of the legislature
commended Obama for seeking their approval, but did not guarantee him their
vote. Secretary of State John Kerry, granting multiple interviews on Sunday
morning to explain the president’s choice, said Obama’s national security team
“was not contemplating” a defeat on Capitol Hill.
“I do not believe the
Congress of the United States will turn its back at this moment,” Kerry
Obama’s decision to include Congress came after a dramatic military
escalation in the Mediterranean Sea over 10 days. Six warships and accompanying
submarines, each armed with 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles, were positioned at the
ready, to strike targets in Syria at the president’s order.
Plans for a
strike were intended to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical
weapons on a mass scale.
Crisis in Syria - full JPost.com coverage
“The case remains the same,” Kerry said, as the
decision moved to Congress.
Kerry said he believed lawmakers would rise
to the occasion, given the implications of rejecting the resolution on America’s
greater foreign policy.
“I think the interests that we have with respect
to potential future confrontation – hopefully not – but the challenge of Iran,
the challenges of the region, the challenge of standing up for and standing
beside our ally Israel, helping to shore up Jordan,” he said, “I believe
Congress will pass it.”
Kerry also announced new evidence that sarin gas
was the weapon of choice used by Assad against civilians in the Damascus suburb
of Ghouta on August 21. Over 1,400 died in the attack, the US says, including
“Blood and hair samples that have come to us through an
appropriate chain of custody from east Damascus, from first responders... [have]
tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry said. “So each day that goes by,
this case is even stronger.”
Hours after Obama decided to seek
congressional authorization – after a walk in the White House grounds with his
chief of staff, and a heated follow-up discussion with his national security team – the administration submitted language for the
resolution, which could be amended in congressional committee.
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 [and] future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass
destruction,” the resolution reads.
The White House draft also refers to
the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which the US is a signatory, and to
Congress’s Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of
2003, which found that Syria’s WMD program “threatens the security of the Middle
East and the national security interests of the United States.”
to CNN, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he
believed Congress would support the measure “to provide for the general defense
of the United States.”
“We better send a very clear message in a unified
way that we’re not going to tolerate proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction – let alone their use,” Rogers said. “If you don’t send that
message, that has real-world consequences.”
Senator Rand Paul, who
frequently argues for limiting America’s presence abroad, said that the Senate
would undoubtedly approve the measure. But the chances that the House will
reject it are “at least 50-50,” he said.
“I don’t see a clear-cut
American interest,” Paul said. “They want to fight for stalemate and they want a
Some Democrats have also voiced concerns over the
policy, suggesting that the vote, set for next week, will not fall down
conventional party lines.
“The guiding principle of American foreign
policy should be, ‘do no harm,’” said Senator Chris Murphy. “Will a US attack
make the situation for the Syrian people better or worse? There’s a potential
this could spill into a much broader conflict in the region.”
hosted a similar debate on military intervention in the Syrian conflict just
days before, and shocked the White House when its House of Commons, in a split
evening vote, rejected British involvement.
British Prime Minister David
Cameron had already sent warships to the region before recalling Parliament from
its summer recess for the crisis vote.
Now, after votes were cast in
Parliament and with a debate looming in Congress, French President Francois
Hollande is facing mounting pressure to refer the Syrian question to his
Hollande has said that France will not let Syria go
unpunished for its chemical weapons use, and gave his assurances to the US that
he would support military action.
“Like the US president, who decided to
consult the US Congress in the name of democratic principles, the French
president must organize, after the debate, a formal vote in parliament,”
Jean-Louis Borloo, the head of French opposition party UDI, said in a
“France cannot go it alone,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls
told Europe 1 radio. “We need a coalition.”
The decision to consult
Congress guarantees that any military operation in Syria will be delayed for at
least a week. Syrian National Coalition leaders expressed surprise at the
decision, after receiving assurances from US officials that a strike was
“Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication,
the beginning of the historic American retreat,” Syria’s state-run newspaper
declared on Sunday.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made
clear that at the G20 this week, hosted in Saint Petersburg, he would make an
aggressive effort to lobby against a strike and called US claims that Assad
forces used chemical weapons “utter nonsense.”
“Of course the G20 is not
a formal legal authority. It’s not a substitute for the UN Security Council, it
can’t take decisions on the use of force. But it’s a good platform to discuss
the problem. Why not take advantage of this?” he said. “Is it in the United
States’ interests once again to destroy the international security system, the
fundamentals of international law? Will it strengthen the United States’
international standing? Hardly,” he said.
Saudi Arabia told fellow Arab
League states on Sunday that opposing international intervention against the
Syrian government would only encourage Damascus to use weapons of mass
The US had seemed to be gearing up for a strike against
Assad’s forces over an August 21 poison gas attack, but is now seeking
Congressional approval first.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told
foreign ministers meeting in Cairo that condemnation of Syria over the poison
gas attack, which US officials say killed 1,429 people, was not enough. He said
opposing international action on the grounds that it was “foreign intervention”
was no longer acceptable.
“Any opposition to any international action
would only encourage Damascus to move forward with committing its crimes and
using all weapons of mass destruction,” said Faisal.
“The time has come
to call on the world community to bear its responsibility and take the deterrent
measure that puts a halt to the tragedy.” Obama’s decision to delay military
action against Syria to seek Congressional support could delay a strike by at
least 10 days, if it comes at all.
The Arab League meeting highlighted
divisions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt over how to approach the Syrian
crisis. Egypt said it was opposed to foreign military intervention in
Reuters contributed to this report.