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Senate panel backs Syria strike

Vote on likely missile attack against Assad may reach the floor next week

By James Rosen and William Douglas
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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  • Developments on Syria

    FRANCE: French leaders warned that failing to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would send a dangerous signal to the dictators of the world. But French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also said his country would not launch a retaliatory strike on Syria if the United States decides not to do so. McClatchy Newspapers

    SYRIA: Al-Qaida-linked rebels launched an assault on the government-held Christian mountain village of Maaloula , and new clashes erupted near the capital, Damascus. Associated Press

    REPORT: Human Rights Watch Syrian reported that Syrian armed forces had repeatedly used cluster bombs, another widely prohibited weapon, in the country’s civil war. The group’s report said it had documented dozens of locations in Syria where cluster bombs had been fired over the past year. Cluster bombs are munitions that may be fired from artillery or rocket systems or dropped from aircraft. They are designed to explode in the air over their target and disperse hundreds of tiny bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Syria’s government has denied using cluster munitions in the civil war. New York Times

    CONGRESS: In a letter to her rank and file, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she had received suggestions for legislation in the House “to add language to prevent boots on the ground, to tie the authorization more closely to the use of chemical weapons and to address concerns about an open-ended timetable.” Associated Press



WASHINGTON Even as Congress took a step Wednesday toward authorizing the use of force in Syria, a growing number of lawmakers spoke out strongly against a U.S. military strike and warned that it would draw the United States into an escalating conflict that could spread throughout the Middle East.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution for a likely missile attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad in retaliation for his alleged use of chemical weapons two weeks ago, but it prohibited any involvement of U.S. troops.

“It gives the president the wherewithal to have the limited military action that he’s asked for in order to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons and the killing of innocent civilians,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate panel. “At the same time, it is tightly tailored by having a timeframe in it and by certainly prohibiting American boots – troops – on the ground.”

The measure is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timing for a vote is uncertain. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.

The House also is reviewing Obama’s request, but its timetable is even less certain and the measure could face a rockier time there.

The Senate committee’s 10-7 vote indicated deep divisions within Congress that President Barack Obama still must overcome in his quest to demonstrate to Syria, Iran and other nations that the use of chemical or nuclear arms is unacceptable.

“I don’t see a clear-cut or compelling American interest,” Paul said. “I see a horrible tragedy, but I don’t see that our involvement will lessen the tragedy. I think it may well make the tragedy worse. I think more civilian deaths could occur. I think an attack on Israel could occur. I think an attack on Turkey could occur. I think you could get more Russian involvement and more Iranian involvement. I don’t see anything good coming of our involvement.”

A bipartisan divide

Seven Democrats – Menendez, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Tim Kaine of Virginia – and three Republicans – Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake – voted for the resolution.

Five Republicans – Paul and Sens. James Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Barrasso of Wyoming – and two Democrats – Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico – voted against it. Democrat Edward J. Markey, elected Secretary of State John Kerry’s replacement in Massachusetts, voted “present.”

“This idea that a military response is the only way to respond to what is happening in Syria is just not true,” Rubio said. “Instead, our response should have always been, and still should be, a multifaceted plan to help the Syrian people get rid of Assad and replace him with a secular and moderate government they deserve.”

Kerry defends war record

Obama’s top Cabinet officers shuttled between the Senate panel and a key House committee as lawmakers warned them that only a narrow resolution authorizing a limited U.S. military engagement in Syria has a chance of passing Congress.

In the House, Kerry responded heatedly when Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said that the secretary of state, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden all had advocated for caution in past conflicts.

“Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you have abandoned past caution in favor of pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?” Duncan asked.

Kerry, who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s and voted to authorize the war against Iraq a decade ago, shot back angrily: “I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it.”

When Duncan interrupted, the secretary of state said, “I’m going to finish, congressman,” and cited his support as senator for past U.S. military action in Panama and elsewhere.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, painted a bleak scenario that he said could result from attacking Assad but leaving him in power.

“Assad fights back,” Poe said at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He doesn’t just take it. He retaliates against us or lets Iran retaliate against Israel – all because we have come into this civil war. So they shoot back. Then what do we do once Americans are engaged? Do we escalate or do we not fight back?”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon is prepared for any consequences of a U.S. strike, which is likely to come from Navy destroyers delivering Tomahawk cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria.

“I can never drive the risk of escalation to zero, but I think that the limited purpose, the partnerships we have in the (Middle East) region, the contributions we’ll seek from others, begin to limit that risk,” Dempsey said.

The Associated Press contributed.

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