WASHINGTON — In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for deadly chemical weapons attacks, U.S. lawmakers want the commander in chief to spell out his broader strategy in Syria, and soon.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said he believes the airstrike on the Shayrat air base near Homs was a one-off. And yet he added that an extended effort against Syrian President Bashar Assad would require Trump to work closer with Congress.
“Definitely, and today is the beginning of that consultation, although I have had conversations throughout the night and this morning with them,” Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters Friday afternoon. “If there’s going to be something more extensive occurring, they will be consulting with Congress.”
Corker, once considered for Trump’s secretary of state, said he received several calls from the administration during the course of the day on Thursday, before and after Trump signed off on the strike at 4 p.m. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Corker beforehand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called in the middle and Trump called afterward.
Trump's decision to strike Assad was a stark shift for a president who blasted intervention in Syria as hastening a third world war, and he has been criticized for making an emotional decision to strike without a broader strategy. Even Corker, who praised the decision, described in emotional terms Trump’s public condemnation in the Rose Garden on Thursday of the April 4 chemical attacks.
“It reflected that emotional connection that all of us have had to the people of Syria, the people we’ve seen in refugee camps and the rebels we’ve met, and to me it was transformative, and I told him how proud I was of him and our country last night,” Corker said. “He shared with me how he shared it with the premier of China, and I think it was a pretty good moment.”
The Obama administration missed the opportunity to mount such a strike in 2013, he said.
On Thursday, Tillerson said “steps are underway” for the U.S. to do what Obama could not: organize a coalition to remove Assad. But the Syrian civil war is a complicated and bloody tangle of state and non-state actors, which would require Trump find a winning path where the Obama administration foundered.
Adding to the urgent need for a strategy, Tillerson visits Moscow next week, originally billed as a trip to heal U.S.-Russia relations. Shortly after the strikes were announced, Tillerson said Russia — whose military has been propping up Assad — had “failed in its responsibility” to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Of the visit, Corker said: “The table is set for a much more fruitful discussion next week.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, of Maryland, said Trump now owes Congress a strategy to remove and indict Assad as a war criminal and to bring the various parties together to end the 6-year-old Syrian civil war. While there is no strategy now, Trump was justified in using military force to respond to an atrocity — and to that end, Cardin said, he was willing to overlook Trump’s rapid about-face.
“I look at what he did, and what was happening in Syria, so I understand the response,” Cardin said of Trump. “We need a coordinated strategy articulated by Mr. Trump as to what our policy is in Syria.”
As the strike took place, Cardin said a member of the National Security Council called to notify him and said there would be no intent to conduct further strikes.
“If there’s any continuing military operations, he doesn’t have any congressional authority to do what he did, so he needs to consult and submit to Congress,” Cardin said of Trump.
After senators exited a brief by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Capitol Hill on Friday afternoon, some were frustrated the presentation offered little in the way of next steps or a broader plan.
“There was some fairly important information in that briefing, but it was limited to the logistics of the attack itself,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., adding that Dunford punted on the question of whether Congress should have authorized the strike.
“Congress needs to authorize the strike, it’s our constitutional responsibility,” Murphy said.
While lawmakers voiced opposing views about whether Trump needed Congress to pass an Authorization for Use of Military Force covering strikes against Assad, Corker and a number of Republicans said there is no need to seek an AUMF.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the strike was justified to deter a regime willing to use chemical weapons while U.S. troops are fighting in Syria. Corker said an AUMF wasn’t needed because the strike was limited to respond to “the atrocities that were committed” in the chemical attacks.
“I don’t think there’s an intent to carry this further,” Corker said. “They’ve got options should Assad’s behavior continue to be as it is. I don’t think there’s an intent to escalate this.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voiced support, saying it demonstrates to the world America is leading again. Vice President Mike Pence called him Thursday night to explain the attack was related specifically to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
“I think it was not only an important message to Assad, but to everybody else who may be wondering just what this new administration's going to be like,” McConnell said.
“If I were one of our Sunni Arab allies watching this, I'd be encouraged that America was back in the business of being more assertive, less passive. That does not mean you are going to send in the troops every time there is a skirmish somewhere, but I thought it was very reassuring.”
While McConnell described the strike in narrow terms, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have called for further military action to neutralize Assad’s air power.
Rubio said he was open to more extensive military action, but the administration’s “tactics have to be in furtherance of a strategy.”
“The events of April 4 were unforeseen, they happened and they had to be addressed, but the work of [drafting] a more comprehensive process continues and will be complete in short order,” Rubio said. “I would like there to be a strategy whose goal it is to remove Assad and defeat radical Islam in that region — and they’re interrelated.”