House GOP challenges Pentagon on war powers for Syria

House Republicans demanded assurances from the White House and the Pentagon on Thursday that they will not be left out of the loop should the U.S. decide to take action in Syria. 

GOP members on the House Armed Services Committee tried to paint Pentagon officials into a corner on whether or not the White House would require congressional authority for military action.

"We have not exercised our constitutional responsibilities" to weigh in on matters of war, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) chided Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during Thursday's committee hearing on the escalating conflict in Syria. 

Panetta told members his department would fully abide by the statutes under the War Powers Act "as long as I am secretary [of Defense]." 

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The act specifically requires the White House to notify Congress anytime the United States seeks to take military action in a foreign country. 

However, President Obama did not seek legislators' approval when he ordered U.S. warships to the coast of Libya last March to support the NATO-led mission to oust former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. 

At the time, the White House claimed the U.S. role in Operation Unified Protector was so limited, congressional authority was not required. 

But Jones told Panetta Thursday that decision "was really . . . kind of a snub to Congress," adding that he was "very concerned" the same would happen in Syria. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been waging a bloody crackdown on rebel forces in the country for months. 

Assad's willingness to target armed rebels and civilians alike has spurred calls in Congress for the United States to get more involved beyond providing non-lethal aid, which the Obama administration has opposed. 

The Obama administration has said it is waiting to see how the peace plan from UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan unfolds, which has the backing of the UN Security Council.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have led the charge in pressuring the White House to provide arms and air support to the Syrian rebels, on Thursday said the peace plan has failed.

"Assad’s campaign of violence will continue, as it has for more than a year now, until the military balance inside the country shifts against him," the senators said in a joint statement. "Until then, the killing will only increase, and diplomacy will continue to fail."

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested Thursday the White House should start creating “safe zones” near Syria’s border. 

Those safe zones would still require U.S. or NATO air power to protect those areas from Assad's forces. 

“I believe the unity of the [Syrian National] Council and coordination of the [Free Syrian Army] must develop significantly before one could create those zones,” Kerry said. “But our interests and values demand that we consider how they could be constructed and what this would mean for Syria’s neighbors.”

Kerry said that the international community has to make it clear that Assad's days are numbered. “The question now is what can be done to send that message clearly and effectively." 

That type of international buy-in would be a critical factor in determining whether the U.S. takes military action in Syria, Panetta told House defense lawmakers. 

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) jumped on that point, grilling the DoD chief on what exactly would be required for the U.S. to take action against the Assad regime. 

Aside from the blessing of the international community, the U.S. would likely need guarantees from regional allies to play a role in any military action. 

The Pentagon and White House are determined not to take any unilateral action in the country, Panetta said. 

However, Forbes pressed Panetta on why the approval of the international community would trump authorities granted by Congress. 

"That is not what we believe the constitution to be. That is not what we believe the War Powers act to be," Forbes told The Hill after the hearing. 

Panetta admitted the U.S. could take military action against Syria or other countries without congressional approval under certain circumstances. 

But he reiterated that DoD and the Obama administration still remained committed to finding a political solution to get Assad to step down. 

The U.S. is in the process of "strengthening and unifying the non-violent political opposition" in Syria via continued shipments of "non-lethal support" to the rebels in the form of communications and medical equipment, according to Panetta. 

That program is being led by the State Department's Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, with support from DoD. 

American diplomats also continue to work with the international coalition, known as the "Friends of Syria" and led by Annan, to bring an end to the violence in Syria. 

Assad's government agreed to a cease-fire plan proffered by Annan and the group on April 11. 

The plan calls for Assad to pull his troops back and stop attacking rebel strongholds in Homs and elsewhere in the country. Critics of the plan claim it will allow Assad to remain in power if the violence stops.  

Recent reports claim Syrian troops continue to hold their positions and are carrying out attacks on major population centers in the country. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Thursday Syria was failing to keep the truce.