War Drums: Levin, McCain Urge Obama to Use U.S. Force in Syria

A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 11, 2013. Syria warned on March 12 it is ready to fight "for years" against rebels. Reports this week that Syrian forces used chemical weapons have increased calls from U.S. lawmakers for American intervention. (JM LOPEZ/AFP via Getty)

The drums of war are escalating in Washington, audible just beneath the Senate’s tense political debate of a Democratic-crafted budget. But the drums are not beating in the direction of Iran. Syria is the target.

All week, amid reports Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s military used chemical weapons against rebel forces, Democratic senators have joined interventionist Republicans in calling for U.S. military intervention.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., joined GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in calling for more U.S. involvement in the civil war, which has claimed 70,000 lives. When pressed, the duo did not rule out using American forces to secure Assad’s chemical weapons.

Today, Senate Armed Serivces Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., went further than fellow-Democrat Casey. Levin and longtime Syria intervention proponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took their call for direct U.S. military action — including air strikes — in Syria straight to the commander in chief.

“We believe there are credible options at your disposal, including limited military options, that would require neither putting U.S. troops on the ground nor acting unilaterally,” the senators wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama in a letter released Thursday.

In the letter, the duo suggests Obama take several steps, including U.S. airstrikes to cripple Assad’s air force to “ease the suffering of the Syrian people and protect U.S. national security interests.”

Levin and McCain believe Obama should order air strikes targeting Assad’s combat aircraft and SCUD missile batteries.

The senators highlight for Obama comments made during SASC testimony by outgoing U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. James Mattis  that “a fair amount” of Assad’s military aircraft fleet could be destroyed by air strikes.

What’s more, “such a mission could also include Assad’s SCUD missile batteries and would not require American or allied pilots to fly into the reach of Syria’s air defenses,” the duo told Obama. “We urge you to work with our friends and allies, as well as regional organizations, to consider this limited option.”

The duo urged Obama to “lead an effort” that would include U.S. allies in the region — like Turkey — in establishing “a safe zone inside of Syria’s northern border” where Syrian citizens would be guarded from attacks by Assad’s military.

Levin and McCain echoed Casey and Rubio in telling Obama they would like him to provide “more robust assistance directly to vetted opposition groups” because they “believe such assistance should include tactical intelligence and increased deliveries of food and medicine, fuel, communications equipment, medical care for the wounded, and other humanitarian assistance.”

Obama has so far been reluctant to directly involve the U.S. in the years-old civil war. Some U.S. officials question whether American security interests are really at stake there; others say the American security apparatus has been unable to determine whether Washington backing the rebels would also mean the U.S. would be helping al Qaeda elements believed to be fighting Assad’s forces.

However, Obama this week said he intends to find out if Assad’s forces did indeed use chemical weapons, a so-called “red line.” It remains unclear whether Obama will decide American force is the only way to end the civil war, but congressional war drums are getting louder.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett