Congress Bristling Over Obama’s Syria Policies

Members of both parties increased their pressure on president Obama Tuesday over sending weapons to embattled rebels in Syria, as a group of Senators wrote letter to the White House asking the president to “take specific steps to change the military balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime and its foreign supporters.”

The missive, signed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), warns that Assad’s forces are regaining the upper hand after months spent on the defensive in the bloody two-year civil war.

The trio cite reports that large numbers of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and increased material support from Iran and Russia are adding to the death toll in a conflict that has already claimed 93,000 lives, according to the latest figures from the United Nations.

The Senators claim that providing arms alone won’t be enough to sway the fight at this point in the conflict, stating explicitly that the US “must take more decisive military actions in Syria.”

Their plan looks like this:

We must also degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles against civilian populations and opposition forces in Syria. Such actions could include the targeting of regime airfields, runways, and aircraft on the ground, which would also limit Assad’s ability to transport and resupply his ground forces and those of his allies by air. Finally, as part of this military effort, we encourage you to take steps to support the Syrian political and military opposition in creating and defending safe zones inside Syria where they can better organize and unify their efforts.

Obama told PBS’s Charlie Rose earlier this week that “I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition.  I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show.”

On Tuesday, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg published a story that laid bare the deep divisions in the Obama cabinet over taking action in Syria. In the story, Goldberg reports that during a recent meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry made a bold call to action, demanding that the United States begin bombing Syrian military airfields in order to deter the regime’s ability to launch airstrikes against its own people.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey “threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation,” he reported.

Also on Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) joined the fray by sponsoring an amendment to block a recent $572 million contract the US government signed with Russian military contractor Rosoboronexport, which is intended to buy dozens of helicopters for the Afghan Army and security forces.
In April 2012, Human Rights Watch called Rosoboronexport “Syria’s main weapons supplier.”

“I sponsored an amendment to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars in America to enter into contracts or agreements with Rosoboronexport,” the Senator explained. “My amendment had strong bipartisan support, and it passed unanimously.”

Cornyn offered a similar amendment last year that the Obama administration was able to circumvent by saying that the deal was in the United States’ national interest.

On Tuesday, Cornyn shot back, saying that “in other words: they want us to believe that we are promoting U.S. security by doing business with a Russian arms dealer that is helping an anti-American, terror-sponsoring dictatorship commit mass atrocities” in Syria.

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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