Syria airstrike: Can Obama persuade Congress to share responsibility?

Congress set a red line when it ratified a treaty that banned use of chemical weapons, said President Obama, who argued that any decision to strike Syria should be a shared responsibility.

Jessica Gow/Scanpix Sweden/AP
President Obama reacts during a press conference at Rosenbad, the seat of the Swedish government in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Obama is on a visit to Sweden, ahead of the G20 summit, held in St. Petersburg, Russia.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens at right as Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to advance President Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war.

[Updated 11 a.m. EDT] President Obama on Wednesday said that the credibility of Congress and the world is on the line in the debate over how to respond to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people.

Mr. Obama said that he did not set a “red line” against chemical weapons use by himself. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the globe’s population agreed to a treaty that called such weapons abhorrent and banned their use, even in war, according to the US chief executive.

“Congress set a red line when it ratified the treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated – in a piece of legislation called the Syria Accountability act – that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for,” Obama said at a news conference in Stockholm, where he is meeting with Sweden's prime minister.

Asking Congress to vote on the issue is a means to get lawmakers and the American public as a whole invested in a tough choice, the president said.

The experience of recent US involvement in conflicts shows that otherwise, “Congress will sit on the sidelines and snipe," Obama said. "If it works, the sniping will be a little less. If it doesn’t, a little more, but either way, the American people and their representatives are not fully invested in what are tough choices. And we as a country and the world are going to start to have to take tough choices.”

In framing the issue as one in which responsibility should be shared, the US chief executive is attempting to broaden the terms of debate on one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency.

But he faces a situation in which opposition to his proposed intervention remains widespread among lawmakers and the US public at large. If the main worry of opponents can be summed up in a phrase, it might be this: “boots on the ground.”

Skeptics say initial American airstrikes might be limited, but they could well produce unintended consequences in Syria’s civil war, inevitably drawing US and allied ground troops into a larger conflict.

This view is held by a solid majority of US residents, according to a new Pew Research poll. Seventy-four percent of respondents to the Pew survey said US airstrikes would lead to a backlash against the United States and its allies in the region. Another 61 percent judged airstrikes likely to lead to a long-term military commitment in Syria.

The bottom line: Only 29 percent of respondents favored airstrikes, in Pew’s survey. Forty-eight percent were opposed, and 23 percent didn’t know what to do.

The survey “finds both broad concern over the possible consequences of military action in Syria and little optimism it will be effective,” says Pew.

Other polls produce similar findings – a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday found 59 percent opposition to attacking Syria. US lawmakers have been getting an earful on this issue from constituents during the August recess. That’s why Secretary of State John Kerry’s slip on the “boots on the ground” question Tuesday attracted a lot of attention.

Asked at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing whether a congressional resolution should contain a prohibition on the deployment of American soldiers to the region, Secretary Kerry said “no.”

If Syria imploded, or Syria’s chemical weapons were about to fall into the hands of terrorists, the US might need to send troops, in Kerry’s judgment.

“I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country,” said Kerry.

This did not sit well with some lawmakers. Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said he did not think it an appropriate response.

“I don’t think there are any of us here that are willing to support the possibility of having combat boots on the ground,” said Senator Corker.

Realizing what he’d done, Kerry quickly backtracked, saying he was speaking only hypothetically. “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war,” Kerry said.

Few if any US lawmakers believe the administration is itching to escalate the Syrian situation, given the president’s apparent ambivalence over any military action there. Those such as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona who favor more direct US involvement in the effort to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are frustrated that the White House won’t do more.

The problem now for the administration is that years of involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts have emphasized the inability of any US president to control conflicts once they’re started. “Events are in the saddle and ride mankind,” according to a quote usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As to how that might play out in Syria, a new RAND Corp. study on US air power options there concludes it would not be an easy matter to achieve American objectives with stand-off munitions alone.

Destroying the Syrian air force would be operationally feasible but would produce only a marginal benefit for Syrian civilians, according to the RAND study. Neutralizing Syrian air defenses would be manageable, but would not be an end in itself.

Establishing safe areas inside Syria would amount to intervention on the side of the opposition, while an air campaign against the Syrian Army would do more to ensure the fall of the Assad regime than to determine its replacement, says RAND. Air power might reduce Mr. Assad’s ability or desire to use chemical weapons, but eliminating Syrian chemical weapons stocks would require a “large ground operation,” according to RAND.

“Each of these aerial intervention options has the potential to escalate or expand the conflict to lead to escalatory responses from Assad’s allies, or to widen or deepen US military involvement. Therefore, anticipating potential next steps after an initial intervention should be central to any strategic planning for using airpower in Syria,” write RAND’s Karl Mueller, Jeffrey Martini, and Thomas Hamilton. 

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