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U.S. Senate Committee Backs Military Action In Syria

  • RFE/RL

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left) testifies alongside Secretary of State John Kerry at a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria in Washington on September 4.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left) testifies alongside Secretary of State John Kerry at a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria in Washington on September 4.

U.S. lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have approved a resolution authorizing the government to carry out targeted strikes aimed at degrading the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian government.

The resolution permits U.S. President Barack Obama to order a "tailored" military mission not exceeding 90 days and involving no U.S. troops on the ground.

The vote on September 4 was 10 for taking military action, seven opposed, with one member voting "present," which is equivalent to an abstention.

The White House welcomed the outcome.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the measure would uphold U.S. national security interests and degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capabilities.

The resolution still needs the backing of the full Senate and a committee in the House of Representatives is working on its own measure.

The vote comes a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urged the committee to support strikes.

The two also testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4.

Kerry told the committee that both Washington's allies and its adversaries were watching not just what Washington would do in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack Syria, but how it would do it.

"The world is not just watching to see what we decide here but the world is really watching to see how we decide; frankly, whether or not we can still make or achieve a single voice speaking for the United States of America -- the Congress and the president of the United States," he said. "And they want to know whether or not America is going to rise to this moment, whether or not we will express our position with the unity that this moment demands."

According to Washington, an August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus involved sarin gas and left more than 1,400 people dead.

Russia and China have expressed doubt about U.S. intelligence implicating the Assad regime in the attack. Kerry said, "only the most devious political purpose could assert that this did not occur as described or that the [Syrian] regime did not do it."

Kerry and Hagel said failure to respond could undermine U.S. credibility and the safety of America and its allies.

Hagel said the likelihood was "very high" that Assad would launch another chemical weapons attack if undeterred. Lack of U.S. action, he warned, could also embolden not only the Assad regime, but Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups.

The authorization of military action, however, faces significant resistance in Congress, where some lawmakers fear it could lead to prolonged U.S. involvement in Syria's bloody civil war or spark an escalation of regional violence.

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Ed Royce (Republican-California) said, "The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration, but the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next."

"What are the chances of escalation?" he asked. "Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line now, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates? Americans are skeptical of getting near a conflict that, as one witness has noted, is fueled by 'historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues.'"

Kerry later responded by saying that if Assad "is arrogant enough and foolish enough to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity (i.e. a military strike against Syria) the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war."

The top U.S. diplomat also underscored that the resolution would not call for U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

Other lawmakers questioned whether U.S. allies and other countries in the region were prepared to contribute to the U.S. effort to quash Assad's chemical weapons capability, as well as the monetary cost involved.

Hagel maintained that he was confident of international backing for moving against Damascus.

"We are also working with our allies and our partners in this effort," he said. "Key partners, including France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other friends in the region have assured us of their strong support for U.S. action."

Kerry and Hagel testified to the House committee one day after urging action before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Both the full Senate and House of Representatives must approve authorization before it can be sent to Obama for his signature.

French Prime Minister Urges Lawmakers To Back Strikes

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has warned that if there was no response to chemicals attacks in Syria it would "put in danger peace and security" in the entire region.

Addressing parliament on September 4 to rally support for a military strike against Syria, Ayrault mirrored Kerry and Hagel's assertion that not taking action would also risk sending Iran and North Korea the wrong message on their nuclear programs.

President Francois Hollande has offered to join the United States in military action against the Assad regime in response to alleged chemical weapon attacks.

He has resisted opposition calls to submit any decision to wage war to parliament.

On September 2, the government presented lawmakers with what it said was evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for a "massive and coordinated" chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP