By Kevin Bogardus - 09/03/13 11:43 PM EDT
A prominent pro-Israel group on Tuesday swung its considerable political influence behind President Obama’s call for military strikes against Syria.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) broke its silence on the Syria question, issuing a statement that urged lawmakers to grant the president “the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime’s further use of unconventional weapons.”
The pro-Israel group said this was “a critical moment” to send a message to Iran and Hezbollah, which have both aided Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies,” AIPAC said.
The organization had been noticeably silent last week as the president made his case for military action against the Assad regime. Obama and others in his administration have argued that Assad’s use of chemical weapons cannot be ignored.
AIPAC’s support could be a game-changer for the debate. The votes on the Syria resolution are expected to be close, particularly in the House, and AIPAC’s endorsement could go a long way toward helping the administration secure enough support.
“AIPAC maintains that it is imperative to adopt the resolution to authorize the use of force, and take a firm stand that the world’s most dangerous regimes cannot obtain and use the most dangerous weapons,” the group said.
Another prominent pro-Israel group also gave Obama its support on Tuesday.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said Congress “should act swiftly to add its voice” to hold Assad accountable for killing his own people.
“The president has made a decision to use military force against Syria because of their use of chemical weapons. I don’t know what there is to debate about,” Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, told The Hill. “For us, it’s not a political issue. I know there are people who come with a political agenda. For us, this is above and beyond.”
Foxman said he recently received a call from a White House official to discuss Syria, as had other Jewish-American leaders.
“They were basically saying if you agree with the president’s position, he needs your support,” Foxman said, describing the White House call.
Other groups that could bring lobbying pressure to bear on Congress regarding Syria have been more circumspect.
On Thursday, J Street, the liberal-leaning pro-Israel group, issued a statement condemning Assad for the sarin gas attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. J Street urged that any action taken “should aim to minimize the loss of civilian life, deter the further use of chemical weapons and avoid regional spillover.”
But the group said it is still debating whether to back military action in Syria.
“We have not taken a position on the president’s request to Congress for authorization for the use of force. We are discussing that internally right now,” said Jessica Rosenblum, a J Street spokeswoman.
One official with a pro-Israel organization said several groups in the community have condemned the chemical weapons attack but have been cautious in lobbying for support of U.S. military action in Syria.
Syria shares part of its border with Israel, raising fears that a U.S. escalation could spill over into a broad conflict in the Middle East.
“I think people are waiting to see and hear the president make a very personal and public argument on why this is in America’s national security interest, starting with America’s role in the world,” said the official. “When the president and the administration goes out and creates a framework for the argument, that creates room for others to come in and fill in the details.”
Foxman believes more groups will come out publicly in support of striking Syria, but didn’t predict a lobbying blitz from his own organization.
“The fact that we have publicly put out a position saying we support the president means that we don’t have to lobby. Our supporters can see our position and act accordingly if they so wish,” he said.
The Syrian opposition is expected to be more aggressive in lobbying for strikes on the Assad regime. Yaser Tabbara, a legal adviser to the Syrian National Coalition, said he is in Washington this week to garner support from lawmakers.
“Unequivocally, we support President Obama’s call to Congress to conduct the strikes against the Assad regime. We feel that this is an absolutely necessary measure to stop the bloodshed that is happening in Syria,” Tabbara said.
But some Arab-American groups are on the opposite side. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said political action — not an act of war — is the proper response to the conflict.
“The call right now to the president is to do something. In two weeks’ time, the call will be to do more and we will find ourselves as a combatant in a civil war,” Zogby said. “They [the Obama administration] haven’t laid out a plan on how you get from a bombing mission to a political solution. How does it contribute to the negotiating process that we all know that we need to get to?”
Anti-war groups have also begun to rev up their advocacy machine on Capitol Hill.
Jim Cason, director of strategic advocacy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker public interest group, said the group’s lobbyists would be on Capitol Hill this week pushing back against the authorization. The group is encouraging its activists to call and tweet their lawmakers as well as write to their local newspapers in opposition to striking Syria.
“There is a growing international consensus in condemning the use of chemical weapons. If the U.S. goes it alone at this point, it undermines that consensus,” Cason said.
Other groups are looking to shape the language in the war resolutions coming before Congress.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, said the group remains neutral on striking Syria but wants to make sure the authorization is narrow in scope.
“We don’t take a position on the merits of military action in Syria. We do take a position on how the United States goes about taking military action in Syria,” Murphy said. “We are going to look at the resolution to make sure it’s not overbroad, and we will work with Congress to make sure it’s narrowly tailored, as we have done with every war resolution since Vietnam.”