Lawmakers wary of Trump escalation in Syria

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Washington scrambled Tuesday to make sense of the White House’s statement that the United States has “identified potential preparations” by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for another chemical attack.

The statement came Monday night with little explanation, and stoked fears among the president’s critics that the United States is moving into the Syrian civil war without a clear strategy.

{mosads}“Assad should be in the Hague for war crimes,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “His activities are totally unacceptable. You need to have a game plan to get him out of office. Obviously, the international community must respond to atrocities, and we will.

“But there’s no military solution. There is no authorization for the use of military force against the Assad regime. [President Trump] has to work with Congress and get that game plan.”

Late Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement the Assad government was engaging in activities similar to the preparations that were seen in advance of its April 4 sarin gas attack.

“The United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children,” Spicer said.

“As we have previously stated, the United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State [in] Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. If, however, Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.”

On Tuesday, the Pentagon backed up the White House.

“The activity we have seen at Shayrat in the last couple of days is associated with chemical weapons handling at a known spot on that base, a known aircraft shelter that’s used for chemical weapons,” spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.

The Shayrat airfield in Homs province is the same location where U.S. officials say forces loyal to Assad launched a sarin gas attack in April that killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more.

In response to that attack, Trump ordered a strike against Shayrat, and the U.S. military hit the airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

It was the first time in the six-year civil war that the U.S. military directly targeted the Syrian government. U.S. officials insisted it did not represent a change in the U.S. approach to Syria, but it prompted many in Congress to demand the administration’s larger Syria strategy.

The concerns about Trump’s actions in Syria have been amplified by a series of confrontations between U.S. and pro-Assad forces.

The U.S. military shot down a Syrian jet it said was firing on its partnered ground forces, the first time a U.S. jet has shot down a manned aircraft since 1999. U.S. forces also twice shot down Iranian-made, pro-Assad drones and conducted an airstrike on a pro-government militia that got within a “de-escalation zone.”

Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, warned Tuesday against conflating those incidents with responding to chemical attacks.

“Establishing a principle of chemical weapons deterrence is a limited objective,” said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “That’s not really a slippery slope per se, and it’s something I’m strongly in favor of. What’s going on in eastern Syria, that to me is a different situation. I can understand chemical weapons deterrence as a simple concrete thing. What is the objective of bombing Syrian and Iranian forces in eastern Syria? I can’t say it in a sentence.”

Public statements such as the White House’s can be a strong deterrent for chemical attacks, he said.

The trouble, he added, is that now the White House has basically drawn a red line.

“Even if they didn’t use that expression, in a sense they did, because they have left themselves with not a lot of maneuver room,” Ford said. “Assad will for sure push the envelope again. It’s just his nature.”

Some Democrats expressed concern Tuesday that the statement was the latest sign of escalating U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.

Asked if he thought that was the case, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, “Absolutely.”

“It excited a lot of conversation during our mark up this morning,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “What we talked about in the committee is they’ve come forward with no Syria strategy, no ISIS strategy, no Afghanistan strategy.”

The administration has said it would get back to Congress on a number of related questions and has yet to, he added.

“When they had the missile strikes against Syria a couple months ago now, and we asked what is your legal authority? We’ll get back to you. Do you plan any other steps? What if it happens again, what will you do? We’ll get back to you. And they’ve not. They’ve not done it in open, and they’ve not done it in classified,” Kaine said.

Cardin, meanwhile, said he was not aware of the Foreign Relations Committee being given any information to back up the White House’s statement. He said he expects the issue to come up when officials brief the committee on its ISIS plan after the July 4 recess.

The Republican senators with oversight of the military and foreign relations were less talkative Tuesday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he “didn’t pay any attention” to Monday’s White House statement.

“I pay attention to what he does, not what he says,” McCain said. “If I paid attention to what he says, I would be convoluting every day.”

Still, when asked whether he’s concerned with a lack of strategy in Syria, McCain said yes and pointed to his dressing down of Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier this month.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the White House’s statement was “valid” and suggested any reports to the contrary were Russian propaganda.

“The claims that they made are valid,” Corker said. “I know the rhetorical side, said in Russia, is only for consumption by their own people.”

But when asked whether the committee would ask for specific evidence to back up the White House’s statement, Corker would not say.

“I can’t say any more about it,” he said, “but from my perspective the claims that were made were valid.”

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker John McCain Tim Kaine
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