House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said he expects US President Barack Obama to consult with Congress before taking military action in Syria. (Defense News)
WASHINGTON — Prominent US Republican lawmakers are lining up behind military strikes in Syria, forming a rare alliance with the Democratic commander in chief.
President Barack Obama is mulling limited military strikes to punish his embattled Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, for allegedly using chemical weapons during an Aug. 21 operation as part of that nation’s years-long civil war.
Support on Capitol Hill for a US-led intervention — backed by London, Paris and Arab states — has been mixed for months. Feelings among lawmakers is not partisan, with isolationist libertarian Republicans joining with anti-war liberal Democrats in opposing a military mission.
But after Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday delivered a razor-sharp rebuke of Assad,during which he said allegations that Assad’s forces used chemical arms “are real,” leading GOP hawks voiced support for military strikes.
“What is before us today ... is compelling,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department. “It is grounded in facts.”
With House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republican leaders pressing Obama to consult Congress before green-lighting strikes, the support of the party’s hawks and interventionists could be key — especially with polls showing a majority of Americans are skeptical of a Syria mission.
That’s because GOP members such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California and former House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King of New York have sway within their caucuses.
Should Obama seek congressional approval for a Syria mission, those members likely would deliver blocs of votes to ensure passage of a use-of-force resolution.
“The president established a red-line policy,” McKeon said. “I expect the commander in chief would consult with Congress in the days ahead as he considers the options available to him.
McKeon was referring to comments Obama made last August, when he said, “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
“That would change my calculus,” Obama said then. “That would change my equation.”
McKeon on Monday was lightly critical of how Obama has handled the situation since issuing the “red line” warning.
“Drawing red lines before you know what you are willing to do to back them up is folly,” the HASC chairman said.
Still, with America’s gauntlet already thrown down and with the White House concluding Assad’s forces conducted the Aug. 21 chemical attack that severely crossed it, McKeon is ready to punish the Syrian leader.
“But now that American credibility is on the line,” McKeon said, “the president cannot fail to act decisively.”
In an interview with MSNBC, Corker said he has been consulted by the White House and expects a US attack “is imminent.”
“I think you’re [going to] see a surgical, proportional strike against the Assad regime for what they have done,” Corker said. “And I support that.”
Like many of his GOP colleagues who have spoken since Kerry’s blistering remarks, Corker is urging a limited response that avoids entangling American forces in another protracted ground operation in a Middle Eastern nation where violence from al-Qaida and sectarian conflict could complicate things — and cost Washington in terms of blood and treasure.
“I do not want us, though, to move into a situation where we’re moving beyond supporting the moderate, vetted opposition on the ground. I do think Syrians need to be the ones to deal with this issue,” Corker said. “But certainly, with the use of chemical warfare, I think we have to act. And I think we’ll do so, again, in a very surgical, proportional way.”
King told CNN that “especially after what Secretary Kerry said, we have to act.”
“Once that red line has been crossed and once chemical weapons have been used, I believe the president has to take action, not just because of Syria but because of the entire region,” said King, also a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Iran is going to look at how we respond as they go forward with their nuclear weapon program.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last week sharply panned Obama for his inaction in Syria and mixed messages on Egypt, saying America’s credibility in the Middle East has never been lower. King picked up on that point Monday, suggesting strikes on Assad regime targets would boost Washington’s standing in the region.
“There’s more of a concern here that we lose our credibility if we don’t act in view of how strongly President Obama has warned Syria in the past not to use chemical weapons,” King said.
Richard Haas, a former senior State Department official under GOP presidents who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters Monday that cruise missile strikes on “anything associated with Syrian chemical weapons capabilities, storage depots or potentially the troops that are believed to be associated with their use” are most likely. Additionally, Haas predicted Syrian command-and-control facilities also could be targeted.
King also said sending long-range missiles “would be the best as far as destroying the chemical weapons locations, and also as far as taking out command-and-control locations.”
Like McKeon, the hawkish King had some criticism for Obama.
“But having said that, I’m still not a big advocate for the rebels because I believe they’ve become largely controlled or significantly controlled by al-Qaida elements,” King said. “If the president had taken action two years ago, we would be a lot better off.”
Obama, in a television interview on Friday, made clear he is skeptical of a large-scale US ground operation in Syria. On that, he and King appear to agree.
“If we send in air power we have to assume and expect that Americans will be shot down and that will involve us going in and taking further action,” King said. “At this stage, I believe we should … have maximum use of cruise missiles.”
Though hawkish Republicans are on board, they are joining more conservative Republicans and the party’s leaders by urging Obama to seek congressional approval of any Syria mission.
“They do not need an authorization, but I do hope they’ll come for one,” Corker said. “I hope they come to Congress for an authorization at some point.”