White House tells Congress to deter Iran with Syria war vote

Fresh laboratory tests of blood and hair samples test positive for sarin gas, Kerry says; believes Congress will authorize strike.

Kerry in press conference on Syria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Kerry in press conference on Syria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
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 said.
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.
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“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 426 children.
“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.
“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 [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.”
Speaking 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 negotiated settlement.”
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.”
Britain 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 legislature.
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 statement.
“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 imminent.
“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 destruction.
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 Syria.
Reuters contributed to this report.