Obama gains key House allies on Syria strike

Republican, Democratic leaders Boehner, Pelosi back strike, say vote will be held, once House members reconvene in Washington.

By MICHAEL WILNER IN WASHINGTON, MAYA SHWAYDER IN
September 3, 2013 18:35
US President Obama (rear C) meets with bipartisan Congressional leaders

U.S. President Obama (rear C) meets with bipartisan Congress. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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President Barack Obama gained critical bipartisan support on Tuesday for limited military action against Syria, as the House Republican and Democratic leaders agreed the US needed to demonstrate to the world that it sticks by its redlines.

Obama hosted House of Representatives leaders John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-California) at the White House, calling for a “prompt vote... as soon as all of Congress comes back early next week.”

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Boehner confirmed that a vote would be held next week, once the House reconvenes in Washington.

But even with the support of the House leaders, as of Tuesday Obama administration officials remained unclear on how much support exists among rank-and-file congressmen for the resolution, with no one whipping votes and with Republicans and Democrats crossing party lines to form alliances of hawks and humanitarians, doves and libertarians.

“We recognize that there are certain weapons that, when used, can not only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors; can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey,” Obama said before the meeting. “And unless we hold them [to] account, it also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much.”

Obama said he was confident that the resolution would pass and that he was comfortable with Congress changing its language to limit the scope and duration of the mission.

“The use of these weapons has to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and capacity to stop [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going be tolerated,” Boehner, the speaker of the House, said after the meeting.



“I am going to support the president’s call for action,” he said, calling on his Republican colleagues to do the same.

“This is something that the United States, as a country, needs to do.”

Former Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi will also support the president, though she notes that Obama does not need congressional approval – even if the House votes against the resolution once it reaches the floor next week.

“There are compelling reasons. The intelligence is clear that Assad perpetrated this attack of using weapons of mass destruction,” Pelosi said. “Deterring their use is a pillar of our national security.”

She said that “humanity drew a line decades ago” on WMD use, and that such attacks “cannot be ignored, or else we cannot say, ‘Never again.’” Obama’s national security team made its case publicly on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, arguing in front of sympathetic senators why an attack on Assad’s regime in Syria is both a moral and strategic imperative.

Sen. Robert Menendez (DNew Jersey), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, opened the hearing with an endorsement of the resolution, calling it “not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world.”

The hearing was the first of its kind, considering the merits of authorizing the use of force, in more than a decade.

“There are risks to action, but the consequences of inaction are greater and graver still: Further humanitarian disaster in Syria; regional instability; the loss of American credibility around the world; an emboldened Iran and North Korea; and the disintegration of international law,” Menendez said.

Ranking Member of the committee Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said he is inclined to support the resolution, but hopes the White House will reinforce military support to moderate opposition forces.

“I know that people in the region are watching,” he said, charging that America’s credibility is on the line.

Secretary of State John Kerry – who chaired the committee during his time in the Senate – acknowledged the weight of the vote now imposed on his former colleagues.

“This debate is about the world’s redline. It’s about humanity’s redline,” Kerry said. “And it’s about Congress’s own redline.”

“Only two tyrants dared to cross the world’s brightest line,” Kerry added. “Now Bashar Assad has become the third.”

Kerry cited the Nuremberg trials and Hitler’s atrocities, saying that “never means never” when the US says “never again.” He said the US cannot send a message that its government has turned inward since Iraq.

“Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip,” he said. “Hezbollah is hoping isolationism will prevail.”

A protester answered Kerry’s charge, saying that “nobody wants this war,” mentioning the stances of UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis.

“When someone kills hundreds of children with a weapon the world has banned, we are all responsible,” Kerry said.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the borders of Israel, Jordan and Turkey are “directly” threatened by an increasingly desperate Assad.

“We’ve made clear we’re not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with military force,” Hagel said, vowing an operation “limited in duration and scope.”

“We also must examine the risks and consequences of action, as well as the risks and consequences of inaction,” he said, noting that the word of the United States is “vital currency” in world affairs.

“Chemical weapons make no distinction between combatants and innocent civilians,” Hagel said.

Meanwhile, in New York, Ban said he “had taken note” of Obama’s decision to strike Syria.

“I appreciate his efforts to have his future course of action based on the broad opinions of the American people, particularly Congress,” Ban said. “I hope this process will have good results.”

Ban did not outright condemn or endorse Obama’s support for a US strike, but said merely, “This latest escalation should be a wake-up call to the international community.

“We should avoid further militarization of the country [Syria] and revitalize a search for a political settlement,” he added. “We must consider the impact of any punitive measure on efforts to prevent further bloodshed.

“Bearing in mind the primary responsibility of the Security Council, I call for its members to unite and develop an appropriate response should the allegations of use prove to be true,” Ban said. “I call on the Security Council to move beyond the current statement and show leadership. This is a larger issue than the conflict in Syria. This is about our collective responsibility to humankind.”

Ban confirmed that he will use the opportunity of the G- 20 summit next Thursday and Friday in St. Petersburg, Russia, to “engage with world leaders on this tragedy including humanitarian assistance for the more than 2 million refugees and 4.2 million Syrians who have been displaced internally.”

As for the UN mission sent to Syria to investigate the alleged chemical weapons attack, Ban said it had been working “around the clock to prepare materials” and that “all biomedical and environmental samples will have arrived at designated laboratories by tomorrow.”

The secretary-general has repeatedly refused to provide a timeline for how quickly the samples will be analyzed and a report will be written on the findings, but reiterated that the process was being expedited.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stressed that Israel was not involved in Obama’s decision to launch a limited attack on the Assad regime.

“We are not involved and not interfering in what is happening in Syria,” Ya’alon stressed at a Rosh Hashana toast at the headquarters of the Judea and Samaria Division near Ramallah, against the background of Palestinian construction.

“We repeat and emphasize that.”

He said that the US preparation for a military strike on Syria stemmed from Assad’s crossing of an American “redline.”

Ya’alon said that up until the end of last week, there were those in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah who thought that if they threatened Israel and other countries in the region – such as Jordan and Turkey – “we would run to the Americans and ask them not to attack.”

Once those forces understood that Jerusalem was not overly concerned by their threats, and that Israel’s assessment was that those who might challenge it understood the price they would pay, this was taken off the agenda.

“Israeli citizens can be relaxed and celebrate Rosh Hashana and the upcoming holidays, in peace and tranquility. They also do not need to run to stock up on gas masks,” Ya’alon said.

The defense minister ducked reporter’s questions on Obama’s decision to seek authorization from Congress for military action. The move was “an internal American one and we are not interfering with it,” Ya’alon said. He said that he, the prime minister and the IDF chief of staff were in communication with their American counterparts.

“We have open channels with our allies who share the same strategic interests in the region,” he said.

On Iran, Ya’alon said, “our assessment with regard to the Iranian threat is that the US president is obligated to prevent Iran for acquiring nuclear weapons, and this challenge is still before him and before us.”

He briefly expressed skepticism over the renewed Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, noting that next week marks 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accord.

“It seems to me that negotiations with the Palestinians will occupy us for many years, and along the way there will be much speculation,” Ya’alon said.

Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu alluded to Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s seminal essay penned 90 years ago arguing that Zionism would only flourish if an un-breachable Iron Wall was erected around it.

“Our lives are dependent on that Iron Wall. We are building that Iron Wall and Iron Dome,” Netanyahu said in a reference to the developments in Syria.

The prime minister was speaking during a visit to a hitech park in Beersheba that will serve as the country’s national cyber center.

“And we have an iron will,” he added. “Those are the things that give us the strength to defend ourselves and to say to those who want to harm us – it is not worth it. Those are the defensive fundamentals of the State of Israel.”

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