The 10 most revealing moments in the Senate’s big Syria hearing

September 4, 2013

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a four-hour hearing on Syria with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.


Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned in his opening statement of the consequences of doing nothing about Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack. (The Washington Post)

If you don't have the patience to wade through the whole transcript, here were 10 crucial questions raised at the hearing, and note that administration officials didn't fully answer them all.

1) How good is the intelligence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons? Early on, Kerry laid out the very broad case, but many of the details remain classified:

KERRY: We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instruction to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks.

We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory, not one. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory. We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact, and that is concrete.

... We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale, particularly from the heart of regime territory. Just think about it in logical terms, common sense.

With high confidence, our intelligence community tells us that after the strike the regime issued orders to stop and then fretted openly -- we know -- about the possibility of U.N. inspectors discovering evidence. So then they began to systematically try to destroy it.

2) What's the point of a strike on Syria? Dempsey argued that the goal wasn't solely to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, it was also to "degrade" his ability to deploy those weapons — though it's not clear what that means, exactly:

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.): How confident are you and how confident can you express to this committee you are that we can, in fact, put in place a military plan that's limited in scope and duration, that can effectively degrade Assad's capability to carry out future chemical attacks?

DEMPSEY: I'm confident in the capabilities we can bring to bear to deter and degrade. And 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.

3) How limited will a strike on Syria be? Initially, Kerry told Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that Congress shouldn't explicitly bar the administration from deploying ground troops, just in case worst came to worst:

KERRY: In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies and all of us -- the British, the French and others -- to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, 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.

But after a number of follow-ups from alarmed senators, Kerry walked this back in a big way, saying that he was just speaking hypothetically:

KERRY: I want to emphasize something. I want to come back to it because I don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier. This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. I just want to make that absolutely clear. You know, what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential; it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization, in no way, be crystal clear. There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for.

4) Does it matter if the U.S. strike on Syria is being delayed? Dempsey agreed that Assad now has time to prepare but insisted (without giving details) that the United States could still achieve its goals with a strike:

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R-Ariz.): General Dempsey, is there evidence that the Assad regime is right now moving some of the targets that can be moved or surrounding targets with civilians or others to make it more difficult to give effect to our strategy?

DEMPSEY: Thanks, Senator. First, I do want to, for interests of clarity here, what I actually said to the president is the following: The military resources we have in place can remain in place. And when you ask us to strike, we will make those strikes effective.

In other sessions, in the principals committee, not with the president present, we talked about some targets becoming more accessible than they were before. But to your question, there are in fact, there is evidence, of course, that the regime is reacting not only to the delay, but also they were reacting before that to the, to the very unfortunate leak of military planning.

5) What happens if Assad uses chemical weapons again after a U.S. strike? Dempsey suggested that even more U.S. strikes could be in the offing:

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-Wyo.): The, in terms of what success looks like, I think Senator Udall specifically said, you know, what happens if gases are used again? I wonder if we do a limited strike as is proposed and still Assad goes back and uses chemical weapons on his people, that engenders an entire new set of hearings. And how does this -- how does this end? Where are we a month from now?

DEMPSEY: Well, as I said, Senator, there's a, we're preparing several target sets, the first of which would set the conditions for follow-on assessments. And the others would be used if necessary and on. We haven't gotten to that point yet.

6) What's the end-game in Syria? Hagel suggested that strikes should be accompanied by other diplomatic efforts to negotiate a settlement:

HAGEL: A political solution created by the Syrian people is the only way to ultimately end the violence in Syria. Secretary Kerry is leading international efforts to help the parties in Syria move toward a negotiated transition, a transition that means a free and inclusive Syria. We are also committed to doing more to assist the Syrian opposition.

7) What do we know about Syria's rebels? At several points, Kerry insisted that the Syrian opposition was mainly led by moderates, not dominated by extremists, although he was uncertain on some of the numbers involved:

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-Wis.): What -- what do we know about the opposition? ... It seems like, initially, the opposition was maybe more Western-leaning, more moderate, more democratic. You know, as time has gone by, it's degraded, become more infiltrated by Al Qaida. ...
KERRY: No, that is actually basically not true. It is basically incorrect. The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.

...But let me just say to you that in terms of the opposition numbers, you see ranges up to 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 in total opposition. You see ranges from -- well, I don't want to go into all the numbers, but in the tens of thousands in terms of operative active combatants.

It's worth noting that Kerry's assessment of the rebels appears to be at odds with recent intelligence assessments, "who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements."

8) Would the administration secretly prefer that Assad stay in power? Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pressed Kerry on recent reports that the administration is worried about arming extremists in the opposition. Kerry denied them:

MCCAIN: Secretary Kerry, in the same Wall Street Journal article, quote, "The delay in providing arms to the opposition in part reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly, but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials. The current administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate." Is that story accurate?

KERRY: No.

9) Would Russia retaliate if the U.S. attacks Syria? Dempsey, who has warned publicly of the risks in intervening in Syria before, said he wasn't entirely sure about this one:

SEN. ED MARKEY (D-Mass.): [Russia] provides the military assistance, the training to Syria. Are you concerned that a strike by the United States could increase the amount of military assistance that Russia sends into the Syrian regime?

DEMPSEY: It could, Senator. I mean, there is some indication that they have assured the regime that if we destroy something, they can replace it. But, you know, that is not a reason for me to hesitate to act. And to your point, there is always unintended consequences of conflict. But, as the secretary has mentioned, we know what the consequences could be, probably would be, if we do not act.

10) If Congress doesn't approve the strikes, will Obama act anyway? Kerry suggested that the administration still had the authority to act on its own, although he wouldn't say one way or the other:

FLAKE: Secretary Kerry, what will happen if the Congress says no and does not authorize this -- this strike or this use of force? What will the president do?

KERRY: Well, I can't tell you what the president's going to do because he hasn't told me. But the president, as you know, retains the authority, always has the authority, had the authority to strike before coming to Congress, and that doesn't change.

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Jim Tankersley · September 4, 2013