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Syria: It's complicated

04 September 2013, 11:08 Simon Williamson

Tuesday saw the first real attempt the Obama administration used to lobby members of Congress to attack Syria in retaliation for allegedly using chemical weapons. Although the president believes he does not need Congressional authorisation, he has decided to defer to Congress on this issue - believing the legislature will back his decision.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey all testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the government's capability and intention of striking targets in Syria to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad "accountable" for using chemical weaponry. Axiomatically, the three men were speaking from a point of view of Assad having used chemical weapons, relying on US intelligence reports.
Naturally, there are numerous people comparing this situation to that of the war in Iraq a decade ago, where US intelligence was found to be bogus. While the circumstances are not really all that similar, there is permissible reason to doubt the assurances of US intelligence because of Iraq; not to say that Syria definitively did not use chemical weapons, but that waiting for the United Nations to publish evidence of the sort may sate many concerns the world, and indeed some Very Important People in America, share.

Although the US has "high confidence" in the fact that "the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21 2013", this is a notch below "confirmation", as admitted by the White House.

A flurry of Senator flapping

In fact at one point, when discussing whether there would be an international backing for the US's strikes on Syria, Kerry said, "I think we're at about 34 countries have indicated that if the allegations are true that they would support some form of action against Syria." That is an admission that parts of the international community are not sold on the US's evidence, and the US knows it.
Kerry also set off a flurry of Senator flapping when he mentioned that he wouldn't rule out any hypothetical move against Syria in a manner that was not merely striking chemical weapons targets, but repeatedly corrected himself when he said the president was not looking for an authorisation to put "boots on the ground" - in other words, sending in soldiers. In fact, one of the top selling points of this move to the country has been that missiles will be sent in from long distance, and that no soldier will enter Syria.
Whether that specific wording makes it into the motion that Congress will vote on, however, might be moot, as Kerry constantly insisted the president had the authority to strike Syria without having to ask permission from Congress. Kerry also refused to say what would happen if Congress voted against the president, claiming only "we're not contemplating that because it's too dire".

These points of view led to a testy exchange with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul who said, "This power [to declare war] is a congressional power and it is not an executive power. They didn't say big war, small war; they didn't say boots on the ground, not boots on the ground. They said, 'declare war'...if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us. You're making us into theatre. And so we play constitutional theatre for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress."

Retaliatory strike

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, seemingly on the side of a harsher intervention against the Assad regime, asked General Dempsey about just how effective the attacks could be, and received a surprising answer: "It won't surprise you to know that we will have not only an initial target set but subsequent target sets should they become necessary."
At numerous points during the hearing the conflation of the chemical weapons issue and the fact that the US has declared that Assad must go became apparent, and in some senses this muddied the attempted message from the beginning of this whole debate that the US was not aiming for regime change here. Its plans for Syria, as a matter of record thus far, are devoted to a retaliatory strike because of the alleged use of chemical weapons. This became apparent during a dialogue with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson who, like Rubio, advocated a harsher military operation, and asked about the factions that make up the rebels fighting against Assad.

Johnson's concern was that the formerly pro-Western opposition was now being "degraded, become more infiltrated by al-Qaida", to which Kerry dished a storming response. "The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation," said the Secretary of State, "more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria."
Kerry's attempt at explaining how well he knew the rebels though, was undermined when neither Dempsey nor Hagel could tell Johnson how many fighters the opposition had. Neither would even ballpark it.
As a summary thus far, the US government does not have confirmation there was a chemical weapons attack, let alone know who did it. The presidency believes it has the authority to attack without a directive from Congress - which would likely include limits, if any lessons from Iraq have been learned. Dempsey admitted there are identified targets after the initial planned assault. And the authorities still have a foot in the pool of regime change, no matter how this planned strike goes, while not being able to advocate precisely the makeup of the rebels.
Making sense

Connecticut freshman Senator Chris Murphy probably made the most sense of the day, when he doubted the American military's response to be able to change politics in faraway lands.
"Clearly, though there is not some direct linkage between what happened in Iraq and what happened in Syria," said Murphy. "It does chill the ability of people to believe that American military might can influence politics on the ground in Syria after they have watched the last 10 years."
While the administration may think it has the constitutional authority to smash up Syria, it is likely to be heavily constrained by a writ it thinks it can ignore. And even if Congress backs strikes against Syria, it will be doing so before confirmed proof, without a precise idea of what it wants to achieve.

Although the administration thinks phrasing its objective by saying it is solely to "degrade and deter Bashar al-Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons," sounds specific, there's no indication this will actually be the case.
If anything was made clear on Tuesday, it was that.


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