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US Congress Weighs Attack on Syria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Top U.S. military and diplomatic officials came to Capitol Hill together Tuesday to support President Barack Obama's plan for retaliation against Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, and they argued strongly for Congress to vote to authorize an attack.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the risk of not acting against Syria outweighs any danger from a limited military strike aimed at crippling Syria's ability to use illegal chemical agents.

If Syria goes unpunished, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, other embattled regimes and terrorist groups might try similar tactics, putting American troops at risk around the world.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat beside the two Cabinet officers during Tuesday's marathon hearing and told skeptical senators the Obama administration's plan will not result in any U.S. military presence in Syria - "no American boots on the ground" in Syria, as Kerry phrased it.

The secretary of state repeated the argument he has been making since last week: Syrian armed forces under President Bashar al-Assad carried out a nerve gas attack two weeks ago that killed more than 1,400 people, nearly one-third of them children.

“It did happen, and the Assad regime did it," the secretary said, "...beyond any reasonable doubt."

Although some senators voiced skepticism about the Obama administration's plan, VOA Senate correspondent Michael Bowman said the intensive lobbying effort appeared to be yielding results. Several leading members of the opposition Republican Party said it would be important to support the president when Congress votes next week.

Senator Robert Menendez, who took over leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee when Kerry joined the Obama Cabinet, said the choice before Congress is stark: “We will either send a message to Syria, Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and any other non-state actors that the world will not tolerate the senseless use of chemical weapons by anyone. Or we will choose to stand silent in the face of horrific human suffering.”

Related report by Michael Bowman:

The policy debate in Washington over Syria was topic number one at the White House and on Capitol Hill Tuesday, with the rest of the world watching what the United States will do, and when.

The United Nations secretary-general said any use of chemical weapons in Syria is an “outrageous war crime,” and he called on the Security Council to “unite and develop an appropriate response” to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, Ban Ki-moon said a political solution to the crisis in accordance with the U.N. Charter is the best way to proceed. He cautioned that any use of force to punish those responsible for the chemical attack would not be legal without U.N. authorization.

“This is a larger issue than the conflict in Syria," Ban said. "This is about our collective responsibility to humankind.”

The U.N. has experts working nonstop trying to determine whether chemical weapons were used on August 21 in neighborhoods near Damascus, but there is no word yet when their report will be complete.

The U.N. chief and President Obama are both heading to this week's G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Syria is certain to top the agenda during sessions beginning on Thursday.

Obama left Washington Tuesday evening. He is stopping in Stockholm for a one-day visit before flying on to Russia.

Congressional reaction

Top lawmakers from both major U.S. political parties who met with President Obama Tuesday morning said they support his plan for a strike against Syria.

The Republican Party leader in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, has opposed Obama on many issues in the past, but said this is a different matter.

"We have enemies around the world that need to understand we are not going to tolerate this type of behavior," Boehner said, and he called on other members of his party to pledge their support.

Nancy Pelosi, who leads Obama's Democratic Party in the House, said Assad's tactics have taken Syria outside "the circle of civilized behavior," so the United States must respond.

To those who recall the uncertainties and false reports about "weapons of mass destruction" supposedly held in Iraq's arsenal 10 years ago, Obama said, “This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan."

The plan he has put before Congress "is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message," Obama said, "not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that ... there are consequences” for using outlawed chemical weapons.

Beyond the "grotesque deaths" that resulted in Syria, the president said his concern is the spread of the Syrian conflict to "allies and friends of ours, like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey."

Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York City said the choice is clear: "To turn weapons of mass destruction on your own population is the most despicable thing that anyone can do. If we did not respond in kind, it would send a message to every despot, every thug, every dictator, every terrorist group in the world that you can commit war crimes and murder your own citizens with impunity and nothing is going to happen."

Many U.S. lawmakers say they are waiting to test the mood of the American people before deciding what to do about Syria, and preliminary opinion polls have shown less than complete acceptance of the administration's arguments.

Republican Senator Rand Paul, one of the most outspoken opponents of further U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, emphasized that trend in a comment at Tuesday's Senate hearing. “I have not had one person come up to me and say they are for this war," Paul said. "Not one person.”

Further developments are expected in the coming days in the international diplomatic area.

Allies' response

British Prime Minister David Cameron has personally supported Obama's call for action against Syria, but he was rebuffed last week by Parliament, which voted down his proposal to include British forces in any raid on Syria. Now Cameron is expected to urge Russia, Syria’s top ally, to work with Western allies toward a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

Where World Powers Stand on Syria
*as of 8/30/13

  • Britain: Parliament rejects participation in military strike
  • Russia: Against Western intervention
  • France: President wants "firm and proportionate action"
  • China: Foreign Minister says political resolution is "only way out"
  • Germany: Military commitment is not being considered
  • Italy: Will not take part in military action without a U.N. mandate
  • Canada: Supports intervention but no plans to commit Canadian forces
  • Iran: Opposed to any Western military strike
French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that Europe must forge a united response to Syria, but he said France will wait for the U.S. Congress vote next week before taking any military action.

Turkey, which has a formidable air force and also is home to a crucial U.S. air base, has pledged to support a military strike against Syria, despite deep public skepticism about the wisdom of joining a military operation targeting Syria. VOA reporter Dorian Jones in Istanbul says that, if anything, Turkey wants a more expansive action against the Assad regime - enough to oust him from power.

In the Middle East, U.N. aid officials said the flood of refugees leaving Syria is continuing undiminished, and the civil war has forced more than one-quarter of the nation's people to leave their homes. Current estimates are that two million Syrians have fled the country, and another 4.25 million people are displaced internally.

'A disgraceful humanitarian calamity'

U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said Syria has become "a disgraceful humanitarian calamity, with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history."

Many of the refugees flee with little more than the clothes on their back, and half of them are children. The U.N. says its urgent appeals for money to help meet the refugees' basic needs have gone largely unmet, with other nations contributing only 47 percent of the funds needed.

In the Beka'a Valley of eastern Lebanon, VOA reporter Heather Murdock visited Syrian refugees waiting out the war in shelters made of plywood and cut-up canvas bags. There is a certain solidarity among them, but as the conflict drags on, political divisions are growing, even within religious groups.

Despite the toll of suffering among refugees and the war's enormous casualty toll - more than 100,000 people killed - Assad has denied the latest allegations against him, and he has challenged the United States and France to prove their charges that his forces used chemical weapons. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, he predicted the likely result of a Western military strike against Syria would be a wider regional war.

Russia also has questioned the credibility of U.S. evidence that the Assad government used chemical weapons on civilians.

If the United States launches missile attacks on Syria in retaliation for its suspected use of the nerve agent sarin against anti-government rebels, it will be just the latest in a long series of U.S. foreign military operations. What is unusual is that President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval ahead of the attack.

VOA reporter Ken Bredemeier says previous U.S. presidents have gone to Congress for declarations of war after the country was directly attacked, such as by Japan at the start of World War II. But more often, American presidents have acted on their own, using their authority as the constitutionally designated commander-in-chief. In such cases they have acted without advance approval to send troops abroad, engage in bombing attacks, or dispatch U.S. military personnel to work with international allies.

By some counts, the U.S. has been involved in more than 50 significant military actions in the last half-century -- an average of more than one a year -- ranging from significant fighting in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to lesser incursions in such far-flung countries as Kuwait, Bosnia, Pakistan, Libya, Grenada, Haiti and Panama.

Timeline of events in Syria:


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