Obama administration officials told lawmakers Tuesday that a military strike against Syria would “degrade” the country’s ability to carry out attacks — the most specific military objective they have laid out yet — but faced sharp questions about whether such an operation would accomplish much.
Appearing before a Senate panel, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel struggled at times to frame a proposed military strike on Syria as tough enough to be worthwhile but limited enough to guarantee that the United States would not get dragged into another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East. Nonetheless, they assured lawmakers that the administration was not asking for congressional backing to “go to war,” as Kerry put it.
“Our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks and deter it from further use of chemical weapons,” Hagel said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry said such a strike would have a “downstream” effect of limiting President Bashar al-Assad’s conventional military capacity. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his goal would be to leave the regime weaker after any assault.
“On this issue, that is the use of chemical weapons, I find a clear linkage to our national security interest,” said Dempsey, who has long been skeptical of the wisdom of military intervention in Syria. “And we will find a way to make our use of force effective.”
The packed hearing opened what is expected to be a week of intensive debate after President Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional support for any military strike against the Syrian regime. Appealing to both national security hawks and nervous members of Obama’s own party, the administration has tried to cast any strike on Syria as crucial to the United States’ security interests, particularly its commitment to nonproliferation.
Over and over, officials from Obama on down have stressed that a strike on Syria would be a narrow and direct response to an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that the administration says killed more than 1,400 civilians.
The debate has turned from weighing the Syrian government’s culpability in the attack to weighing the merits of inserting the U.S. military into a conflict that is in its third year. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,00 Syrian civilians have died in the violence, and U.S. officials said any military action is not intended to tilt the balance of power in favor of rebels fighting the Assad regime.
Obama has said that he believes he has the authority to act even without lawmakers’ approval but that the United States “will be stronger” if Congress endorses action in Syria. On Tuesday, he asked for a quick vote when all lawmakers return to Washington next week.
The proposed military action “does not involve boots on the ground,” Obama said, welcoming key lawmakers to the White House for a meeting. “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.”
Obama also gained the backing of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said through a spokesman Tuesday that she “supports the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons.”
Republican and Democratic leaders expressed strong support for the proposed strike. After meeting with Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters: “I’m going to support the president’s call for action. I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action.”
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.