Obama and Congress inch toward US intervention in violent Syria conflict

Talk of intervening in the conflict in Syria is escalating on Capitol Hill, though there’s little consensus on what the path forward should be.

The Obama administration is reportedly moving toward providing assistance to the Syrian opposition forces, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which would open a new phase of U.S. involvement. 

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Amid the behind-the-scenes deliberations, President Obama on Tuesday warned against involving the U.S. military in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake,” Obama said at his press conference. “The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military — you know, that hasn’t been true in the past, and it won’t be true now.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday urged the United States to lead an airstrike against Assad’s forces, saying the conflict has reached a “decisive moment.”


Following McCain’s call for military intervention, a few hawkish members of Congress expressed a willingness to consider military action. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would need to see a “target list” for proposed airstrikes against Assad before supporting them. 

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said McCain’s call for airstrikes was “right on track,” but emphasized the United States should not take the lead on any military mission.

Leaders in Congress are treading cautiously around the issue. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he didn’t support McCain’s stance because the conflict is still “unorganized,” while House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said intervening would be “premature.”

Other hawkish Republicans, such as Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), remain opposed to airstrikes in Syria. West said it would be a bad idea to tie up American forces in a ”pretty bad neighborhood.”

He was also concerned about what comes after Assad, warning that al Qaeda could be involved with the rebels.

A handful of Senate Democrats on Tuesday cautioned against military action. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said it “would require regional [support]” from allies and “a significant commitment” of American troops. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said there would be no “clear-cut” way to ensure that U.S. arms provided to the rebels don’t end up in the hands of terrorists.

The impact of arming the rebels would “play out over the [coming] years” and the United States would have to live with those consequences, Webb said. “It is very important to be careful.”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, like McCain, has been a vocal proponent of more aggressive action on Syria, said what comes after Assad is a secondary issue.

“The concern about whom you’re arming is real, but I think on balance it’s less of a concern than the continued slaughter,” he said.

Graham said the Syrian rebels need to come together to ask for military assistance from international forces and other Arab nations. 

“Targeted airstrikes could stop the slaughter,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford acknowledged at a hearing last week that the opposition remains splintered in Syria, which is one concern of the administration.

The Obama administration has cautioned against viewing Syria as similar to Libya, where NATO forces helped topple the government of Moammar Gadhafi. Young said the Syrian forces are better equipped and trained than the Libyans, adding to the difficulty of staging a successful military intervention.

Obama said Tuesday that the situation in Syria is “heartbreaking and outrageous,” and that it’s not a matter of whether Assad relinquishes power, but when.

The president said the international community has been nearly unified in calling Assad’s actions “inexcusable,” and is continuing the economic and political isolation that will stop Assad.

The administration’s move to change its policy in Syria — which Foreign Policy reported rules out the possibility of a no-fly zone or U.S. military intervention — was praised by Graham, who called it a “good first step.”

McCain took a harder line Tuesday, ripping into U.S. military officials at a hearing. 

“I get irritated. I get angry,” he said of U.S. inaction, arguing Pentagon strategists are standing on the sidelines while Assad’s troops hammer away at poorly armed rebels.

Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis said that Assad’s forces were gaining “physical momentum” on the battlefield, most recently by laying siege to the rebel stronghold of Homs in western Syria.

Arming the rebels is an option, Mattis said, but Pentagon officials are wary that the weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorist groups like al Qaeda.

McCain will get another chance to grill military officials about Syria on Wednesday when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee.