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Can Obama Convince Congress to Approve a Limited Strike in Syria?

September 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama spent Labor Day lobbying Congress members to support a possible strike in Syria, following a high-level briefing for lawmakers Sunday. Jeffrey Brown examines military options with retired Gen. John Keane, former Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley and former Defense Department official Dov Zakheim.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama worked through this Labor Day Monday seeking support for military strikes against Syria. He called in a pair of his toughest Senate critics, hoping they will round up votes for a resolution authorizing the use of force.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: A vote against that resolution by Congress, I think would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that.

JEFFREY BROWN: From two hawkish Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the president got backing for military action, but also complaints that he is in danger of doing too little too late in Syria.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: For two years, the president has allowed this to become, quite frankly, a debacle. And when it comes to selling the American people what we should do in Syria, given the indifference and, quite frankly, contradictions, it is going to be a tough sell. But it is not too late.

So, Mr. President, clear the air. Be decisive. Be firm about why it matters to us as a nation to get Syria right.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think they’re going to have to work very hard. Americans are skeptical.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Top members of the president’s national security team also lobbied for votes today in a conference call with House Democrats. It was all set in motion Saturday, with the president announcing he’s decided the U.S. should attack Syria as punishment for chemical attacks, but, he said:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have long believed that our power is not just rooted in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

And that’s why I have made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American’s people’s representatives in Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: With that, Secretary of State John Kerry hit the Sunday talk shows. On NBC, he pressed the case for military force and added to the evidence he laid out Friday.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first-responders in East Damascus, and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin. So this case is building and this case will build.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was followed by a high-level Sunday briefing for lawmakers, but some in both parties sounded unconvinced.

REP. JANICE HAHN, D-Calif.: I feel terrible about the chemical weapons that have been used. However, we know that chemical weapons have been used in other instances, and we didn’t take military action.

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS, R-Tex.: In my mind, it’s far from settled. It’s not something that should be undertaken light. Certainly, the mood at the district I represent is, do not do this. And I honestly didn’t hear anything that told me I ought to have a different position.

JEFFREY BROWN: Others said they are worried that the administration might be asking for a blank check.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Md.: The draft resolution is very, very broad.

I think one of the concerns in the past has been whether these types of resolutions were too broad.

JEFFREY BROWN: The White House sent up that draft resolution on Sunday. It would authorize the president to use “necessary and appropriate military force against Syria in order to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the Damascus regime’s ability to use chemical weapons again.”

Senators McCain and Graham said today that they heard the makings of a plan from the White House.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We still have significant concerns. But we believe that there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the debate in Washington beginning in earnest, the U.S. military moved more weapons into position, with the aircraft carrier Nimitz and four other ships deploying in the Red Sea.

Meanwhile Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned that any Western strike would risk a wider regional war. His also asked the U.N. Security Council to prevent — quote — “any aggression against it.”

Assad drew support from Moscow, where the Russian foreign minister said the U.S. evidence of chemical attack is — quote — “absolutely unconvincing.”

Back in Washington, President Obama will try to dispel such doubts when he sends Secretary Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel to testify at a Senate hearing tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at some of the military and other options now under debate and soon to be before Congress.

Retired Army General Jack Keane was vice chief of staff of the Army from 1999 to 2003. He was an influential advocate for the surge of troops in Iraq and now has his own consulting company. Dov Zakheim was the Defense Department’s comptroller during the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And P.J. Crowley was assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the first term of the Obama administration. He’s also a retired Air Force colonel.

And welcome to all of you.

General Keane, I want to ask you because I understand you talked to Senators McCain and Graham after their meeting with the president. Do they have a sense of some kind of plan on the table for what could be done militarily?

GEN. JACK KEANE, retired U.S. Army: Yes, I think they came away from that meeting a little bit more optimistic than they had thought they would be.

I believe they were encouraged by the fact that I think the plan is a little bit more robust and that degrades significantly Assad’s delivery systems, to include airpower.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean, to degrade significantly?

JACK KEANE: Well the delivery systems would be rockets, artillery, and also his airpower. Those are the systems he uses to deliver chemical weapons.

And then the command-and-control is associated to that. But there’s a part two to it that they were encouraged by also. And that is the commitment to upgrade more than what we are currently doing the opposition forces with training assistance, with money, and with arms. It was underfunded.


JACK KEANE: Well, he’s already made a decision to do arms, but no arm of any kind has arrived yet.


JACK KEANE: And while it’s not in open sources, the fact of the matter is, those are largely small-arms. It’s unclear as a result of this meeting today if the arms are going to be the kind of weapon systems the opposition forces want, which is any anti-aircraft and also anti-tank systems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dov Zakheim, you have written against military action. Why?

DOV ZAKHEIM, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, what are we going to do, strike with some Tomahawks? We did that in 1998. It didn’t stop the Taliban from supporting al-Qaida three years later.

As we know, 9/11 was a disaster. We also hit Sudan. Didn’t make much difference then. So, what exactly are we going to be doing? If it’s going to be anything like General Keane is talking about, that’s not a one-day shot. That’s going to be multiple attacks. We’re going to have to see how much damage we have actually done. That’s called battle damage assessment.

Our record is spotty on that. Will we get everything we’re targeting? Maybe not. A lot of their aircraft — in fact, the aircraft that seem to be more effective are called L-29 trainers, dumpy little things, but they don’t have to fly off airfields. And suppose we hit some Russians, because the Russians may be there helping their air defenses. Then what happens?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, P.J. Crowley, do you think a limited strike is possible and can be effective?

P.J. CROWLEY, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs: Well, sure.

Our policy — let’s lift the immediate strike question up into strategy. Our strategy is containment. As John Kerry has reiterated on Friday, we will do what we can to help the opposition, but we’re going to contain the civil war as much as possible inside the borders of Syria. Obviously, as the previous report noted, we need to do much more to help on the humanitarian side with the refugee flows into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey.

But much like we did in Bosnia, ultimately, we have to wait for an opportunity where the fighting just works its way through, and then see if we can’t solve this militarily. But I think in the meantime, I think the president has drawn an appropriate red line.

In seeking to contain, we need to be sure that these weapons that can kill far more than any other weapon on the battlefield today, that that is not a weapon that Assad has at his disposal. But to Dov’s point, I think what needs to come out of this congressional debate is a strategy and a policy that gives the president the authority, not only to do it once, but should Assad continue to use chemical weapons, I think we have to be prepared for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re suggesting going further now, right, in terms of degrading his regime?

JACK KEANE: No, I think the issue has always been, how far are you going to go with a limited attack option?

And one of the things I have been advocating is, listen, cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions that are dropped out of airplanes that fly long distances to targets, they work best against fixed targets, as opposed to things that can move around the battlefield.

Well, his airpower is very vulnerable to this because you can take his infrastructure away, that is, his airfields, the logistics infrastructure — that is fuel and munitions that support aircraft, command-and-control, et cetera. That is very vulnerable. Plus, his aircraft are also vulnerable to that.

Assad, in using these chemical weapons, never thought for a minute, in my view, that he would lose his airpower over the use of these weapons. So we still have a huge opportunity to degrade him rather significantly here and to take down some other delivery means as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see? Is it — do you see — it sounds almost easy.

DOV ZAKHEIM: It sounds very, very easy, but it took us quite a while in Libya. In fact, even in Bosnia, it took 78 days.


DOV ZAKHEIM: Kosovo — excuse me — where we were bombing away.

What happens, for example, if the helicopters are moved — and he’s doing a lot of killing with helicopters — these trainers are moved, and he keeps flying them, what happens then? What happens when we face much more sophisticated air defenses because the Russians have given S-300 air defense systems to the Syrians, which the Israelis are absolutely opposed to, by the way?

But if the Syrians are in extremis, do you think the Russians are going to sit by? They’re moving ships to the Eastern Mediterranean. They’re not doing that to go on tour. So, you have to look at consequences. The idea of a limited strike, we don’t know what the limits are. We have never known what the limits are. And once we cross those limits, we get sucked in big time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, P.J. Crowley, about the — was there an upside for the president going to Congress in terms of getting public support for and congressional support for anything like this that might happen?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, there are some anomalies here.

Two years ago, the president was involved in the six-month intervention in Libya. The administration had a U.N. Security Council resolution, but he didn’t seek congressional authority for what was a war, even though the administration called it for legal purposes not hostilities.

In this case, he’s ostensibly going to Congress for support for a shot across the bow, as he has called it. But, as Jack said, the key is, is what the president’s saying is, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to take chemical weapons off the table, but, again, I’m not going to use military action by the United States to impose a solution on the civil war.

Now, that’s an uncomfortable strategy for us to be in, but I think he’s creating the boundaries that — but he needs to have as much flexibility within those boundaries to be able to do what he needs to do, and then — militarily. But then the home run here is then to try to use the limited application of military force to try to unlock the Geneva process and get this back on a political track.

I think that will ultimately be successful, but we have to face the fact that this could take years to evolve, as it did in Bosnia.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the other point on the table, General Keane, about the potential for regional — more regional impact, blowback in many different ways?

JACK KEANE: Well, I think if you maintained the status quo now and didn’t do anything in terms of military intervention based on the chemical attacks, that regional spillover has begun.

So that reality will increase, as will the displaced people and the refugees, et cetera. In terms of blowback, I think nothing but hubris from the Russians. They don’t have much military capability, to be frank about it. Certainly, Syria is not going to attack Israel. They have lost every war they have fought with them on. And they certainly would not bring Israel into this war. That would be a huge mistake.

The Iranians are not going to conduct an attack, a conventional attack on Israel and invite Israel to take down their nuclear systems. I think state-sponsored terrorism is something that has been in their kit bag for a long time. Hezbollah may be firing rockets on Israel, certainly something that could happen. But in terms of a huge blowback in the region that enlarges the war, I don’t think so.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just 30-second response to that, if you would.

DOV ZAKHEIM: I think that if Assad falls, the question is, who takes over? And if the Islamists take over, the most likely group is Al-Nusra.

You know, they’re the best-organized. They’re not the biggest, but they’re the best-organized. In the Russian Revolution, it wasn’t the biggest group that won. It was the best-organized. They were called the Bolsheviks. They were around for 70 years, something to think about.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I will give you a few seconds for a last word here.

P.J. CROWLEY: I think the president will want to keep this limited, because, for the administration, ultimately, Syria, as horrible as it is, is really of secondary importance compared to trying to resolve the situation in Iran.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, P.J. Crowley, Dov Zakheim, General Jack Keane, thank you, all three, very much.

DOV ZAKHEIM: Thank you.

P.J. CROWLEY: Thank you.

JACK KEANE: Yes, glad to be here.