President Obama’s decision to provide military support to the Syrian rebels has sparked a backlash from liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans who are banding together to fight increased U.S. involvement. [WATCH VIDEO]
House lawmakers introduced three bills this week — two with identical titles — that would restrict funds for arming to the Syrian opposition and prevent the administration from intervening without congressional approval.
The flurry of legislative activity represents a new urgency from intervention opponents in the wake of Obama’s move to provide military support to the rebels.
“It’s being spurred by the fact that things area developing quite rapidly in Syria… and now folks are sounding the alarm,” said Adnan Zulfiqar, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “Up until now, the activity that you’ve mainly been seeing on the Hill has been really from the advocates for greater intervention.”
Before this past month, the White House had resisted getting involved in the conflict militarily. That stance drew vocal protests from lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argued the United States had a responsibility to intervene.
Obama changed course earlier this month and said he would provide military support to Syria’s opposition forces. McCain and Democrats like Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) and Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) cheered the move but urged him to go further by creating a no-fly zone in Syria.
The administration is trying to keep out of the crossfire as it makes the pitch to Congress for increased involvement. Vice President Joe Biden briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Syria on Thursday.
While the debate in Congress is focused primarily on what the administration should do in Syria, it is also impacting legislation that isn’t explicitly aimed at limiting U.S. involvement.
One senior defense lobbyist told The Hill that the Defense appropriations bill in the House has not come to the floor, in part, out of concern about amendments that could tie the president’s hands in Syria.
The House did handily defeat an amendment on Syria last month that would have stripped language from the Defense authorization bill urging the president to consider “all courses of action” to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.
But things have change considerably since that vote, as the White House has decided to arm the rebels and moved more troops to Jordan, the lobbyist said.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is public opposition to participating in another war in the Middle East. A Pew Poll released last week found 70 percent of respondents opposed the United States and its allies arming the rebels, while just 20 percent supported it.
A majority of those opposed said the U.S. military was already “overcommitted” and expressed concerns that the rebel groups would be no better than the Assad regime once in power.
“The American public, basically is assaying we’ve got things to fix at home, we’ve tried this and it hasn’t worked, so why do we want to do it?” said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
Korb noted that even the staunchest supporters of U.S. intervention say that U.S. troops should not be on the ground in Syria, because there are concerns of getting fully dragged into the civil war.
Opponents of U.S. intervention have focused on two arguments. They say arms from the U.S. could wind up in the hands of Islamist militants with ties to al Qaeda, and argue that Obama cannot act unilaterally without getting approval from Congress.
At a press conference this week to introduce the bill from Gibson, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) threatened to try to impeach President Obama if U.S. soldiers were killed in a Syrian operation that Congress did not authorize.
“No president, Democrat or Republican, should have the authority to bypass the Constitution, the will of the American people, and bomb a foreign country because he does not like the leader of the country,” Jones said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who joined his House colleagues at the press conference, said the U.S. is going to be providing weapons to those fighting on the same side as al Qaeda.
“The Use of Authorization of Force [AUMF] in 2001 said we could go after the Taliban, Al Qaeda and associated forces,” Paul said. “Now we will be arming forces who are actually associated and fighting on the same side as Al Qaeda.”
Many Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that U.S. military intervention will only make things worse and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis caused by the death of nearly 100,000 Syrians in two years.
“There is a humanitarian disaster. But that doesn't mean that what we do in arming the rebels will be effective in achieving the goal,” Welch said. “It raises very serious questions about whether, in fact, we end up Americanizing a civil war.”
While critics of intervention in Syria have raised their voices, that isn’t likely to quiet those who say the U.S. must get more involved.
McCain recently traveled into Syria to meet personally with rebel commanders, and he returned to say that they needed heavy weapons to stop Assad’s forces. Levin is heading to Jordan and Turkey during the congressional recess.
“There is growing bipartisan support in the Congress for more robust actions to create the military conditions in Syria for a favorable negotiated resolution to the conflict,” McCain, Levin and Menendez wrote in a letter to Obama after the White House said it was providing military support to the Syrian rebels.