WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s latest seesaw on Syria comes not just as the president plans on addressing the nation and as his use of force authorization struggles to find votes in Congress, but as pro-Israel advocates flood the Hill this week to urge lawmakers to take a hard line against Bashar al-Assad.
Today’s proposal from Russia and Syria to make a deal on Assad’s big chemical weapons stockpile not only gives the regime stalling time, but gives breathing room to a reluctant Obama and lawmakers whose votes for or against action risk violating their professed beliefs or countering constituents’ wishes.
Regardless of massive skepticism surrounding the deal brokered by Assad’s main arms supplier, the spin machine was in full swing.
“Credible pressure from the United States helped draw out Russia’s proposal to work with the international community to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile from Syria,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who voted for the strike authorization in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “If genuine, the Russian proposal represents a welcome change from its policy of supporting and supplying arms to Syria… It is my hope that this proposal signals Russia’s willingness to take constructive responsibility for ending the threat posed by Assad’s chemical weapons, and I will work with my colleagues this week to craft a path forward that allows both diplomacy and continued pressure.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who appeared to be swinging toward a “no” vote in recent days, said Obama should “work vigorously” with Russia on the deal.
“At a time when the vast majority of the American people and many members of Congress are extremely skeptical about the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war, I appreciate that the majority leader delayed a vote and that President Obama is prepared to work with Russia to have Syria turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors,” Sanders said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called it “long overdue that Russia weigh in to get its client state to give up its chemical weapons and abide by international law.”
“If Russia is serious, and not just helping Syria stall, it could make a difference,” Levin said. “But we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high given Syria’s past behavior and Russia’s lockstep support for Syria with weapons and with its United Nations veto.”
Some theorized that the delay let advocates of strikes on Syria save face in what would have likely been congressional defeat, had a vote come this week. But a majority of Congress — and a zigzagging administration — also wouldn’t want to be on record voting against the side of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful lobbying organization supporting the Jewish state in Washington.
Over the weekend, AIPAC promised to send about 300 activists up to the Hill this week to lobby members in the Senate and the House. The bulk of action is expected on Tuesday, before Obama makes his primetime speech calling for action against the Assad regime — or, given Monday’s developments, calling for a wait-and-see approach.
“AIPAC urges Congress 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 civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons, particularly against an innocent civilian population including hundreds of children,” reads the group’s official statement.
“Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass. This is a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah — both of whom have provided direct and extensive military support to Assad. The Syrian regime and its Iranian ally have repeatedly demonstrated that they will not respect civilized norms. That is why America must act, and why we must prevent further proliferation of unconventional weapons in this region.”
AIPAC also spearheaded a drive to urge supporters to contact their members of Congress to ask for support for the resolution with a letter noting “I know this is not an easy vote, but it is a critically important one.”
The annual AIPAC conference in Washington draws more than two-thirds of Congress to mingle with more than 12,000 attendees.
J Street, on the other hand, which has been drawing more Democrats sympathetic to Palestinians into its much-smaller ranks with its “pro-peace” mantra, has been notably silent on Obama’s hot-and-cold push for strikes against Assad.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to all the innocent victims of Syria’s brutal civil war, which has already claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. We recognize that the use of chemical weapons is a dangerous escalation and an awful precedent that takes us to a new low. The United States and the international community must hold President Assad and all responsible for this heinous crime fully accountable,” J Street said on Aug. 29.
“As President Obama and world leaders contemplate the appropriate course of action, we are cognizant that there are no easy or clear-cut solutions. Any action taken should aim to minimize the loss of civilian life, deter the further use of chemical weapons and avoid regional spillover.”
Since then, the group has refused to wade into the debate any further or pick a side for any lobbying effort.
The Anti-Defamation League last week came out “strongly” in support of Obama’s strike plan, calling the use of chemical weapons “an immoral crime of the first order.”
“As Jews, we are particularly sickened by the images of unarmed and defenseless men, women and children who were indiscriminately targeted for death by toxic chemical weapons made and stockpiled by the Syrian government,” ADL director Abe Foxman said. “…The world failed to act during the Holocaust and stood by through the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. It is a moral imperative that the international community act now to prevent further atrocities in Syria.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center last week urged lawmakers to take lessons from the Holocaust and back the strikes.
When a World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland told U.S. and British officials in 1942 about a Nazi plan to kill Jews using gas, “both governments were skeptical about the information and tragically wasted precious months doing nothing about it,” the rabbis wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
“By 1945, six million Jews were murdered… since then, every American President, British Prime Minister and other political leaders around the world have pledged again and again that they will never allow history to repeat itself.”
The rabbis highlighted the British parliament vote against intervening in Syria, and urged Congress not to go down the same route.
“On behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, we urge you to vote for the limited strike, because to do otherwise would only embolden the perpetrators and encourage them to gas more victims, while at the same time signaling the world that America’s assurances and promises mean nothing at all,” they added. “This may not be the perfect solution, but it will send a dramatic signal to the Assad regime and all others, that you will have to pay a very high price if you continue to perpetrate such crimes against humanity.”
The American Jewish Committee sent all lawmakers a letter last week also urging “support for the decision by President Obama to take limited military action against the Syrian regime in response to the overwhelming evidence of the regime’s use of chemical weapons targeted at Syrian civilians.”
The AJC leaders cautioned that “acquiescence in the face of the crimes evidently committed by the Assad regime would doubtless have wide-ranging consequences for U.S. interests and influence in the Middle East and around the world; invite further tests of American resolve and capacity to respond to declared threats; heighten instability in a volatile region; and amount to an abandonment of international responsibility to protect civilians from the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Obama meets separately with Senate Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday afternoon, according to the White House. He then delivers a statement on Syria in the East Room at 9:01:30 p.m. Eastern time, according to his schedule.