House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he intends “to vote to provide the president of the United States the option to use military force in Syria.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) voiced support for a strike, saying Assad had acted far outside the norms of civilized behavior.
But even as the House leadership backed the president, support for even a brief military assault remained thin among some rank-and-file members of the chamber.
To address congressional qualms that airstrikes could lead to broader, open-ended military operation, Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) said they are drafting a resolution that would sharply limit the authority that lawmakers would give Obama and the scope of such an attack.
At one point during the Senate hearing, Kerry said the congressional resolution authorizing force should not absolutely rule out the deployment of U.S. troops — a remark that he was forced to clarify after the objections of some members of the panel.
“Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can,” Kerry said. “All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility, and I’m thinking out loud about how to protect America’s interests. Whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress and the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
Kerry and other administration officials said U.S. leadership and credibility are on the line in Syria, with Iran among the bystanders awaiting the American response to the alleged chemical weapons attack. Failure to respond invites further use of chemical weapons, he said, or Iran’s conclusion that the United States would back down if the Islamic republic pushed ahead on building a nuclear bomb.
“Iran is hoping you look the other way,” Kerry told the committee. “Hezbollah [a Lebanese Shiite militia] is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day.”
Many of the questions during the hearing centered on whether a Syria strike was good or bad for Israel’s security. Although Israel has made no public statement on the resolution, Israeli officials late Tuesday issued a statement quoting Obama’s Saturday announcement on Syria.
Israel agrees “that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘heinous act’ for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be ‘international consequences,’ ” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in the written statement. “Israel further agrees with the president that the use of chemical weapons promotes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and encourages ‘governments who would choose to build nuclear arms.’ ”
In an interview, Oren dismissed some senators’ concerns that a U.S. strike against the Assad regime would provoke Syrian, Hezbollah or Iranian retaliation against Israel. “To those who would suggest than an American act against Syria would endanger Israel, we say that Israel can defend itself and will respond forcefully to any act of aggression on the part of Syria and its allies,” the ambassador said.
Members of the Foreign Relations Committee are expected to begin debating Wednesday a new draft of a resolution on the use of force in Syria. The resolution would permit up to 90 days of military action against the Syrian government and bar the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Syria but permit the deployment of a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency, according to a copy of the resolution obtained from Senate aides. The White House also would be required within 30 days of enactment of the resolution to send lawmakers a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria.
Karen Tumulty and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.