Senate Foreign Relations Committee debates Syria action (Updated)

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday on whether to authorize the use of military force in Syria. Earlier President Barack Obama won key support from House speaker John Boehner after deciding to seek approval from Congress for the use of military force. The president has said that U.S. intelligence confirms the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in the conflict there and that the country has crossed a "red line" that demands an international response.

Highlights

3:13 p.m. Obama administration agrees to explicitly rule out US combat troops in Syria

President Barack Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while administration officials agreed to explicitly rule out the use of U.S. combat troops in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack.

The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary."

Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes in the president's requested legislation, rewriting it to restrict the type and duration of any military action that would be authorized, possibly including a ban on U.S. combat forces on the ground.

"There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground," said Secretary of State John Kerry, one of three senior officials to make the case for military intervention at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, "This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter."

California Senator Barbara Boxer acknowledged America's enormous reluctance to get involved in another military effort, saying the easiest thing to do is walk away. But she said we cannot close our eyes to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons — what she called clear violations of longstanding international norms. "I believe America's morality, America's reputation, and America's credibility is on the line."

Boxer told her colleagues ignoring Syria now means it's more likely that chemical weapons will be used against Israel — and worse. She said Iran will view the U.S. as a "paper tiger when it comes to their nuclear program and that is dangerous not only for us and our friends, but for the world."

Boxer voted against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but supported airstrikes against Serbia.

She pressed Kerry about intelligence: whether, as it became clear after the fact in Iraq, there was some dispute between various agencies. She wanted to know whether there was any argument about reports that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime against civilians. Kerry cited public documents released by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, saying he has "high confidence that the facts are as they have set forth."

Boxer pushed Kerry, who responded: "I have no knowledge of any agency that was a dissenter or anybody who had an alternative theory."

Kerry said an intelligence team ran a scenario and couldn't come up with an alternative of who might have used chemical weapons, if not the Assad regime.

Several protesters interrupted the testimony throughout the afternoon. One shouted, "No more war!" They were escorted from the hearing room.

Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad's action "poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region."

The administration says 1,429 died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad's government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.

The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, leaving the principal lobbying at home for the next few days to Vice President Joe Biden and other members of his administration.

Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the Senate committee hearing while, a few hundred miles away, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution. He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization's Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.

In the Middle East, Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean in a display of military might in the region.

Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.

Recent presidents have all claimed the authority to undertake limited military action without congressional backing. Some have followed up with such action.

Obama said he, too, believes he has that authority, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said during the day that even Congress' refusal to authorize the president wouldn't negate the power of the commander in chief.

Still, the president also has stated that the United States will be stronger if lawmakers grant their support. But neither Obama nor his aides has been willing to state what options would be left to him should Congress reject his call.

As Obama has often noted, the country is weary of war after more than a decade of combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is residual skepticism a decade after Bush administration claims went unproven that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, a spate of polls indicates the public opposes a military strike against Syria, by a margin of 59-36 percent if the United States acts unilaterally, according to a new Washington Post-ABC survey, and a narrower 46-51 if allies take part.

Among major allies, only France has publicly offered to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he will await Congress' decision. The British House of Commons rejected a military strike last week.

Yet the president's decision to seek congressional approval presents lawmakers with a challenge, as well.

Even some of Obama's sternest critics in Congress expressed strong concerns about the repercussions of a failure to act.

House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., said after Tuesday's White House meeting that a failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons "only increases the likelihood of future WMD (weapons of mass destruction) use by the regime, transfer to Hezbollah, or acquisition by al-Qaida."

America's largest pro-Israel organization, AIPAC, also announced its support for legislation to authorize a military strike.

Apart from the meeting with Obama, the White House provided closed-door briefings for members of Congress.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said after attending one session that administration officials told lawmakers that the targets the military had identified last week were still present, despite the highly public discussion of a possible attack. "Seems strange to see some targets still available several weeks later," Flake said, adding that he was "still listening" to the administration's lobbying.

Dempsey addressed the same point later in the day. "Time works both ways," he told the Senate panel. He said the United States has significant intelligence about Assad's actions, and "we continue to refine our targets."

Others were firmly opposed. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said on Fox News, "It may sound real easy when people like Secretary Kerry say that 'it is going to be quick and we're going to go in, we're going to send a few cruise missiles, wash our hands and go home.' It doesn't work that way. This could be a war in the Middle East, it's serious."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has close ties to tea party groups, said he probably would vote against authorizing Obama to use force. But he said it also wouldn't be helpful to amend the resolution in a way that constrains the president too much to execute military action, if authorized.

Democrats, too, were divided, although it appeared the administration's biggest concern was winning support among deeply conservative Republicans who have battled with the president on issue after issue since winning control of the House three years ago.

The United States maintains a significant military force in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Navy released one of the warships that had been in the region, leaving four destroyers armed with cruise missiles, the USS Stout, USS Gravely, USS Ramage and USS Barry. Also in the area was an amphibious warship, the USS San Antonio, with about 300 Marines aboard.

In addition, there are two aircraft carriers in the region — the USS Nimitz strike group, which is in the southern Red Sea, and the USS Harry S Truman, which is in the Arabian Sea.

While announcing his support for military action and urging fellow Republicans to come to the same conclusion, Boehner firmly put the burden of rounding up votes on the administration

Shortly after Boehner left the White House after the meeting, his spokesman Michael Steel said, "Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping effort."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was noncommittal about Obama's request. "While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region," McConnell said in a statement.

On Wednesday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Fullerton Republican Ed Royce, will have their opportunity to quiz Secretaries Hagel and Kerry. 

AP

11:30 a.m.: Senate Foreign Relations Committee debates use of force in Syria

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to debate the use of force in Syria in response to President Barack Obama's call for action after the Syrian regime allegedly used chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict there.

Senior administration witnesses were scheduled to testify before the committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said in a statement on the committee's website, adding that "Congress will debate this issue actively, fully, and publicly."

"It is my view that the use of military force in Syria is justified and necessary given the Assad regime's reprehensible use of chemical weapons and gross violation of international law. I look forward to sharing these views with my colleagues in the days ahead as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes to take up this vital national security issue," Menendez said.

8:59 a.m.: President Barack Obama said Tuesday he's confident Congress will authorize a military strike in Syria, and he won the support of House Speaker John Boehner, who said acting against Syria was something "the United States as a country needs to do."

Boehner, Congress' top Republican, emerged from a White House meeting with Obama and told reporters the U.S. must respond to Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons. Boehner said only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and warn others around the world that such actions will not be tolerated.

Obama's meeting with congressional leaders was part of his push to win over support for his request for authorization for limited military strikes against Assad. He indicated he is open to changing the language to address lawmakers' concerns, but urged them to hold a prompt vote.

RELATED: Where does your U.S. representative stand on Syria?

"So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, to degrade his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future, as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark," Obama said.

With war-weary Americans skeptical of sparking another long-winded intervention, Obama tried to assure the public involvement in Syria will be a "limited, proportional step."

"This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan," Obama said.

Boehner's support is key; however, Republicans in Congress do not speak with one voice. Some tea party-backed Republicans are among those who have expressed skepticism.

After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.

The meeting in the Cabinet room included Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with other members of leadership and the heads of the committees on armed services, foreign relations and intelligence. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also attended before heading over to Capitol Hill for testimony later in the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.

Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.

But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.

"There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.

McCain said Tuesday he is prepared to vote for the authorization that Obama seeks, but the Arizona Republican also said he wouldn't back a resolution that fails to change the battlefield equation, where Assad still has the upper hand.

In an appearance on NBC's "Today" show, McCain called it "an unfair fight" and said that if the authorization for U.S. military intervention doesn't change the balance of power, it "will not have the desired effect."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the panel will back Obama if the administration explains "the full case" for the use of force as well as what it sees as the end result. "Not acting has huge consequences," Menendez said on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday.

"It sends a message" not just to Syria, he said, but to Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups.

After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.

"Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."

Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.

But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.

Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.

In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.

In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."

Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.

The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?

Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.

Obama's task is complicated further because he leaves for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden and then attending the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The White House said Tuesday that Obama spoke to a key ally in the G-20, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by telephone Monday night to discuss Syria and pledged to continue to consult on a possible international response.

The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.

The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.

Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.

With contributions by Brian Frank and NPR reporters Bradley Klapper and Nedra Pickler

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