House and Senate hearings this week give Members of Congress an opportunity to question the Obama Administration on Syria and its strategy—and question they should. Here are just five reasons Congress should press the Administration for answers.
1. A “narrow and limited” operation seems at odds with the Obama Administration’s objectives.
The President stated over the weekend that a U.S. military operation in Syria would be “narrow and limited” and would not involve troops on the ground. Yet the Administration’s draft resolution states that the purpose of the military action is to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of weapons of mass destruction or to “protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.” This is a very broad objective.
The Administration has been careful to say that strikes would “degrade” Syria’s chemical weapons capacity. But limited military strikes are very unlikely to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks or delivery capacity. This is doubly true since the Syrian government has now had more than a week to move and protect those weapons. Even assuming that the U.S. can definitively track the weapons, it is complicated to ensure that they are not transferred to another hostile party. Congress needs to challenge the Administration to establish objectives achievable by limited strikes or explain how the strikes will achieve the purposes stated in the resolution.
2. The Syrian rebels have been linked to Islamist extremists.
In addition to the military strikes, the Administration reportedly intends to do “more for the Syrian rebels,” including providing arms. But there is evidence that the Syrian rebels are fighting beside Islamist extremists, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Congress needs to demand a credible plan on how the Administration will prevent U.S. assistance to the Syrian rebels from supporting Islamist extremists.
3. Enforcement of Obama’s “red line” has been inconsistent.
The Administration assesses “with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs.” Yet these earlier attacks did not elicit a military response from the U.S. This belies the Administration’s arguments that chemical weapons attacks necessitate a U.S. military response. Arbitrary enforcement of a “red line” is not a convincing argument.
4. The Administration has not clearly articulated a U.S. national security interest threatened by the August 21 attack.
The President stated that the August 21 chemical weapons attack “presents a serious danger to our national security.” Yet he failed to articulate a direct threat to the U.S. or its allies. Obama said we need to send a signal to dissuade Syria and other nations from stockpiling or using weapons of mass destruction. But retaliation to one chemical weapons attack—and not others—does not send a clear signal. American vacillation in the face of Iran’s nuclear ambitions sends a far more direct signal than a belated, “narrow and limited” military action in Syria.
5. The U.S. has not been able to gain broad support from allies.
The New York Times reported that offers of “military assets” have come from France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. But only France has committed to be an active participant in a military operation. Congress should seek an explanation from the Administration as to why, if the August 21 attack poses a regional threat, our Arab partners are not more committed.
The Obama Administration’s Syria policy has been disturbingly ad hoc and reactive. The Administration has not clearly explained why it must act at this time when earlier incidents did not require action, how its proposed actions will achieve its stated objectives, and what its plans are if the military strikes do not succeed in achieving those objectives. Answers to these and other questions are vital if Congress is to take its responsibilities seriously.
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