Sen. Chris Coons on the U.S.’s three missions in Syria

September 6, 2013
chris coons
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. We spoke on Thursday about Syria. A transcript follows, edited for length and clarity.

Ezra Klein: Let’s start broad. How are you approaching the question of whether to intervene in Syria?

Chris Coons: I’ve heard a lot of concern from Delawarians. Folks have contacted me by calling my office, sending me Facebook messages, buttonholing me on the street. Overwhelmingly, those who raise concerns, their core concern is that it’s eerily reminiscent of Iraq. So, first, I think one of our challenges is to openly recognize this is a debate in the shadow of the war in Iraq and under the specter of Iran.

I want to start by dealing with why this is not Iraq. There’s no doubt Assad has a significant chemical weapons inventory. No one is disputing that there was a major chemical weapons event in the Damascus suburbs that killed a lot of people. After going to several classified briefings, I’m persuaded the intelligence is sound. The opposition simply doesn’t have the capabilities to pull this off. Nor does another outside actor. So it’s very likely the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. They’ve used them many times at a small scale in battle settings over the last year, but this is the first largescale use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as part of a coordinated attack on long embedded rebels in Damascus.

Second, I frankly just don’t find the president and the administration to be in a headlong rush to use American military force. If anything they seem reluctant, hesitant, cautious. I’m one of a number of senators who urged them over the last year to support vetted opposition elements to push towards a negotiated solution and alleviate some of the suffering. But they have been extremely hesitant to be involved in this. Rather than looking for excuses to be involved like in Iraq they’ve really been resisting using military power.

Third, this isn’t Iraq because the authorization for using military force expressly excludes using combat troops. It’s time limited, and scope limited.

Last, there’s an amendment I offered that was adopted by voice vote that puts this in context of our ultimate policy goal. That goal is to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction and to support the vetted opposition towards a negotiated solution. This is an expressly different policy goal than the regime change efforts in Iraq.

EK: I found the amendment you offered really interesting because it seemed to paste a political objective atop a mission that was kind of missing one. One thing that seems true to me is that the emotional reason people want to be involved in Syria is the humanitarian crisis but the mission that the administration and the Senate are considering is a much more limited, much more abstract effort to enforce international norms against chemical weapons.

CC: I think the emotional motivation for many of us comes from having visited Syrian refugee camps, from having to explain to our own children why we’re not acting to address the refugee crisis. I was watching a film clip of the latest assault, the use of napalm on a school, and my daughter came in and saw these children with flesh hanging off their limbs. Any parents watching this have to be moved.

That begs the larger question: Does a red line on chemical weapons imply a green line for using, as Assad has, scud missiles and cluster bombs? That’s why the larger context is so important. My hope is to end the civil war, but I don’t support doing that by having the U.S. go in directly. I don’t know we can accomplish that. I think that as long as Assad is able to bring in Hezbollah fighter and resupply, the civil war is likely to grind on for years and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands will die. I think the only way to get him to the negotiating table is a strike that convinces him his largest advantage, this store of chemical weapons, is off the table.

EK: But these seem like two distinct objectives, and I don’t think the bridge between them is entirely clear. There’s one argument about a very limited strike that punishes Assad but doesn’t change the balance of power in the civil war. There’s another that suggests a strike powerful enough to push Assad to the negotiating table. Those seem like different, and perhaps contradictory, objectives.

CC: Let me see if I can help with that. This is a complex regional context and civil war and I think some in the administration and Congress have struggled to explain how three different objectives line up.

The first objective is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. The second objective is to secure the chemical weapons inventory of Syria against proliferation. The third is to achieve a negotiated peaceful resolution to the civil war.

Assad has control of his chemical weapons, and so on some level, to achieve the second goal of stopping proliferation, it’s in the interest of many countries, including Russia, to make sure the Assad regime is able to negotiate a transition to a new Syria. This is a lesson of Iraq. When we invaded Iraq and wiped out the civil infrastructure, the military, the folks who run water and sewer systems, we ended up having to be the police and civil servants for most of a decade. Overthrowing Assad would require a multinational force like that to go in and try and secure the stockpiles. But what’s hard to articulate is how a limited strike to deter him can leave him in place where he is willing to negotiate a transition. It’s counterintuitive to suggest a limited strike can move us to peace but I’m convinced.

EK: This seems like the core of it though. If the objective is explicitly to avoid hurting Assad too badly, how can we possibly also be hurting him badly enough that he considers negotiating some kind of deal in which he won’t rule all of Syria anymore?

CC: Let’s talk through that carefully. I need to be cautious about not giving away classified information on targeting and military strategy. But I think it’s commonly accepted we can’t and shouldn’t directly strike his chemical weapons stores. That would send up a plume that would kill many people. So we can’t and won’t strike those stores. But we can strike the things used to deliver them. The military unit, the rocket launches, the delivery capability. We can strike things that don’t move like runways and jets and helicopters that can’t be hidden.

If he loses a number of key runways and air bases and functional aircraft, he loses his ability to resupply his troops in areas of the country where he can’t resupply them by land. If the strike, speaking hypothetically, degrades his air defenses, that doesn’t directly weaken him in terms of using air power, but it increases his sense of future vulnerability. If we destroy his defense building, it’ll probably be empty when we hit it, but there is a sense of power feeling like you have a central command. So the strike is likely to be tough and punishing enough to degrade his forces.

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