WASHINGTON: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of military force in Syria Wednesday – the first in a series of votes as the president’s request makes its way through Senate and House committees before coming before the two chambers for a final vote.
Members voted 10-7 in favor, with one senator merely voting “present.” Full debate is expected next week when all of Congress returns from holiday.
The vote had been delayed after Republican Sen. John McCain, an outspoken advocate of intervention against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, introduced an amendment, which was passed. McCain said he wants more than cruise missile strikes and other limited action, seeking a stronger response aimed at “reversing the momentum on the battlefield” and hastening Assad’s departure.
The initial resolution states that the military mission would not exceed 90 days and would involve no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations.
Earlier Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the international community’s credibility was at stake in the debate over a military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Asked about his past comments drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, Obama said that line had already been drawn by a chemical weapons treaty ratified by countries around the world.
“That wasn’t something I made up,” he said. He spoke in Sweden before he attends a G-20 economic summit in Russia later this week.
With Obama in Europe, his top national security aides were at the Capitol arguing for Congress’ authorization for strikes against Assad’s regime. That’s in retaliation for what the administration says was a sarin gas attack by his forces outside Damascus last month that killed more than 1,400.
The Obama administration also needs to persuade a Republican-dominated House of Representatives that has opposed almost everything on Obama’s agenda since the party seized the majority more than three years ago.
The top Republican in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, has signaled key support, saying the U.S. has “enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers that the planned strike would not be a “pin prick” and would significantly reduce Assad’s military power.
“The President [Barack Obama] has said ... this would not be a pin prick. Those were his words. This would be a significant strike that would in fact degrade his capability,” Hagel told a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Hagel also said he thought “the likelihood is very high” that Assad would use chemical weapons again unless the U.S. took action to make clear use of the weapons was unacceptable. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed, saying he thought it was “100 percent” likely.
Hagel also said a strike was expected to cost “tens of millions” of dollars.
“We have looked at the different costs, depending on the different options,” Hagel told a hearing in the House of Representatives. “It would be in the tens of millions of dollars, that kind of range.”Arab nations have offered to help pay for any U.S. military intervention, Kerry said. “With respect to Arab countries offering to bear the cost and to assist, the answer is profoundly yes, they have. That offer is on the table,” Kerry said as he appeared before a House of Representatives panel.
The offer was “quite significant,” he said.
“Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we’ve done it previously in other places, they’ll carry that cost. That’s how dedicated they are to this.”
But he stressed: “Obviously, that is not in the cards and nobody is talking about it, but they are talking about taking seriously getting this job done.”
Obama Saturday unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
Reporters asked Obama Wednesday whether he would take action against Syria if he fails to get that approval.
As commander in chief, “I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security,” he said.
The administration says 1,429 people died from the gas attack on Aug. 21. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists in Syria, says its toll has reached 502. Assad’s government blames the episode on the rebels.
A United Nations inspection team said Wednesday it was speeding up its analysis of tissue and soil samples it collected in Syria last week and hopes to have it done in two or three weeks.
Obama is expected to find little support for action on his overseas trip. Among major allies, only France has offered publicly to join the United States in a strike.
France’s prime minister made a passionate appeal Wednesday for intervention in Syria, placing the blame for the chemical attack on Assad and warning that inaction could let him carry out more atrocities.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed the French National Assembly at the beginning of a debate on the wisdom of a French military response. Wednesday’s debate ended without a vote – since President Francois Hollande can order a military operation without one – but it was part of his government’s delicate dance to rev up support at home for an unpopular intervention.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that any “punitive” strike on Syria would be illegal without a sound case for self-defense or the approval of the Security Council, where Syria ally Russia has used its veto power to block action against Assad’s regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria but said Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Syria used poison gas on its own people.
In an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press, Putin expressed hope that he and Obama would have serious discussions about Syria and other issues at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg this week.
Obama said Wednesday he was “always hopeful” that Putin would change his position on taking action in Syria.
On the ground Wednesday, a nun and activists say rebel fighters have attacked a regime-held, predominantly Christian village, commandeering a mountaintop hotel and shelling the ancient community from there.
The nun, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the assault began around dawn Wednesday with a suicide bombing at a regime checkpoint outside the village of Maaloula.
She said she had heard firefights and regime airstrikes. The nun, speaking by phone from a convent in Maaloula, said regime troops were deployed at the village’s entrance, while rebels had commandeered the Safir hotel overlooking Maaloula and surrounding caves.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the attack and said the rebels were from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.