WASHINGTON Senators from both parties pressed President Barack Obama’s top Cabinet officers Tuesday to provide guarantees that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria after an initial strike in a sign of the potential political pitfalls and widespread public skittishness over even a limited retaliatory attack.
While Obama gained a key supporter in House Speaker John Boehner for responding militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria two weeks ago, a contentious Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing showed how much work remains for him to close the deal and gain congressional authorization for the high-risk move.
The most spirited exchange came toward the end of the 31/2-hour hearing when Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., clashed over the purpose and possible consequences of a U.S. military strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“I don’t know that we can say that by attacking them, he’s not going to launch another chemical attack,” Paul said.
Paul ticked off several risks, among them assaults on Israel, increased Russian involvement in the Middle East and more aggressive behavior by Iran.
“There are all kinds of unknowns that I can’t tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you,” Paul told Kerry. “But I think there’s a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this, and that it may not deter another chemical weapons attack.”
An angered Kerry turned the tables, asking Paul: “If the United States of America doesn’t do this, senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?”
When Paul said twice the answer was unknown, Kerry snapped: “It’s unknown, senator? Senator, it’s not unknown. If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing (Wednesday) and learn that.”
Kerry plans to brief senators in a private session Wednesday where he presumably will talk in more detail about classified information.
Early Tuesday night, Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, had reached an agreement on the Senate text for authorization of force against Syria.
The resolution permits up to 60 days of military action against Assad and gives Obama the option to extend military operations by 30 days, providing Obama “determines and certifies to Congress”’ within five days before the end of the initial authorization that more force is needed.
‘Boots on the ground’?
Earlier in the open hearing, Kerry stirred controversy when he initially refused to rule out the possibility of sending any U.S. troops to Syria in the aftermath of an American strike that would likely be delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy destroyers off its coast.
Asked by Menendez whether a congressional resolution authorizing military action should contain “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground,” Kerry responded: “Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to have a prohibition, not because there is any intention or plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground.”
After saying that Obama will provide “every assurance in the world” that no troops would be used, Kerry sketched a scenario in which they might.
“But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra (an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria) or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us – the British, the French and others – to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country.”
Kerry’s lengthy scenario drew rebukes from Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s senior Republican, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as well as a gentler response from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
By the end, Kerry had backed off his original stance and said the congressional resolution could contain an explicit prohibition against follow-on U.S. troops in Syria, though he continued to acknowledge that down the road their presence couldn’t be absolutely ruled out.
Support from Boehner
At a White House session before the Senate hearing, Obama picked up a key supporter when Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that he supports the president’s desire to launch a limited strike at Syria in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons two weeks ago.
“I’m going to support the president’s call for action, and I believe my colleagues should support this call for action,” Boehner said after meeting with Obama.
Assad has repeatedly denied responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb. Obama, Kerry and other top U.S. officials say the evidence of Assad’s involvement is indisputable.
Obama said Tuesday that any military action against war-torn Syria would not involve “boots on the ground.”
“This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan,” Obama said. “This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime – but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms – that there are consequences.”
Hannah Allam of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.
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