Syria becomes high-stakes gamble for Obama, Congress

Syria is likely to color if not define the rest of President Obama's last term in office – and beyond that, his presidential legacy. In Congress, lawmakers now must assume co-ownership of US foreign policy in this most difficult and contentious part of the world.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday. Delaying what had appeared to be an imminent strike, Obama abruptly announced that he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action.

The civil war in Syria has become a high-stakes political gamble for President Obama and for the United States Congress.

For the President, whatever happens in coming days as lawmakers return from their summer break to debate Obama’s plan to attack the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is likely to color if not define the rest of his last term in office – and beyond that, his presidential legacy.

For Congress – especially the Republican-led House – getting what they wanted on Syria will not be a walk in the park. Voting “yea” or “nay,” lawmakers now must assume co-ownership of US foreign policy in this most difficult and contentious part of the world at a time when the ghost of Iraq hovers about and most Americans are highly skeptical of anything that could involve them in another war.

But for now, and at least until Congress gets back to fulltime work in Washington Sept. 9, the focus is on Obama’s Rose Garden announcement Saturday that he wants to attack the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons but will hold off until House and Senate debate and vote on an authorization measure.

“A successful vote in Congress would strengthen Obama’s hand with both allies and enemies,” reports “The flip side: a losing vote could weaken the president ahead of debates on key domestic issues including the budget, debt ceiling, Obamacare funding, and immigration. On the international stage, it could embolden Syria, Iran, and other unfriendly countries.”

The Obama administration is wasting no time in pushing its message that Assad not only killed more than 1,400 people (including more than 400 children) in a recent chemical attack, but that he did so in violation of international law and must therefore be punished.

Appearing on five TV news shows Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry reported specific evidence that sarin gas had been used in the Aug. 21 attack in Syria. Until now, the type of gas had not been so positively identified.

"In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in East Damascus, and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin," Sec. Kerry said on NBC's Meet the Press.

"We are saying that the high confidence that the intelligence community has expressed and the case that I laid out the other day is growing stronger by the day," Kerry said. "We know where this attack came from. We know exactly where it went. We know what happened exactly afterwards."

Such information in greater detail is expected to be part of classified briefings scheduled Sunday for lawmakers who remained in Washington over the break or decided to return early. Unclassified telephone conferences on Syria for Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats – separately – were held Saturday.

“The Congress is going to do what's right here," Kerry said, stating challenge as much as prediction.

"I do not believe the Congress of the United States will turn its back on this moment. 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, all of these things are very, very powerful interest," he said.

Kerry also repeated that Obama believes he has the authority to strike Syria without congressional authorization.

But for now it’s up to the Obama administration, and especially Obama himself, to convince lawmakers to go along. Five US Navy destroyers armed with an estimated 200-300 Tomahawk cruise missiles, plus an amphibious ship with several hundred US Marines on board, are patrolling the eastern Mediterranean within missile range of Syrian targets.

At this point, it’s impossible to know how Congress will ultimately respond to Obama’s challenge to engage politically on Syria.

“A measure authorizing a strike would seem to have a good chance of passing in the Senate, where the Democratic majority will likely be backed by influential Republicans who favor U.S. military intervention,” the Washington Post predicted Sunday. “It is expected to be a tougher sell in the House, where both war-weary liberals and conservative and libertarian Republicans have argued that the best of bad options is to avoid the temptation to use military force.”

With a one-sentence letter of transmittal to House and Senate leaders Saturday, Obama sent his two-page draft legislation authorizing him “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to (1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or (2) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.”

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