WASHINGTON — President Obama’s war team faced off with the tougher of two chambers on Wednesday as Secretary of State John Kerry & Co. tried to convince the House Foreign Affairs Committee to support an authorization for force in Syria.
But one of the most headline-grabbing topics of the hearing was Benghazi, as a South Carolina Republican asked how the administration could be trusted after the attack and aftermath.
And on the eve of President Obama’s trip to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that Russia could be the source of the chemical weapons used by Assad.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Syria’s civil war “complicates the consideration,” as does a lack of international support.
“There are too many bad actors out there. Countries like Iran are watching. And yes, a credible threat is key to putting the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program,” Royce said. “There are concerns. The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration. But, the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next. That would be particularly true as President Obama isn’t aiming to change the situation on the ground.”
“I know many members on both sides of the aisle are struggling with this issue of using force in Syria. We are all trying to do the right thing for our constituents, for our country, and for our national security. Questions of war and peace are always difficult, and I am proud that we are treating them with the utmost seriousness in this committee,” said Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
“But in the days before we take any vote, I urge my colleagues to ask themselves these questions. If we do not pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get?” Engel added. “What message will Iran receive? Hezbollah? Our allies?”
“Some people in a few places, amazingly, against all the evidence, have questioned whether or not this assault on conscience actually took place,” said Kerry. “And I repeat again here today, unequivocally, only the most willful desire to avoid reality, only the most devious political purpose, could assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen. And the Bashar al-Assad regime did it.”
He added that “at some point in an appropriate setting” lawmakers would receive new information that further points to Assad’s guilt.
“We need to send to Syria and to the world, to dictators and terrorists, to allies and civilians alike, the unmistakable message that when we say ‘never again,’ we actually don’t mean ‘sometimes.’ We don’t mean ‘somewhere.’ We mean ‘never again.'”
Kerry said he’ll be meeting with the 28 European foreign ministers in Vilnius on Saturday and will be working at rallying support. “Many of them have had reservations, waiting for the evidence. So I see many more countries joining,” he said. “Thirty-four countries or organizations have indicated that if the allegations prove to be true they would support some form of action against Syria.”
The “number of countries…that have offered to be part of this operation” can “speak for themselves,” he added.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey made a point of telling the committee that he won’t share his personal views about the resolution seeking authorization of force.
“I will tell you that militarily, the broader the resolution, the more options I can provide,” Dempsey said. “But that said, I’ll also assure you that the president has given me quite clear guidance that this will be a limited and focused operation, not an open-ended operation.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) noted Congress has for months been pushing Syria resolutions that were waiting for action in the Senate despite wide bipartisan support. “Had the United States been taking a more proactive role in Syria by instituting strict sanctions against Assad’s regime, it may have changed his calculations on the use of chemical weapons,” she said.
She also said there was a rumor floating around that the Senate would get a vote on the authorization but not the tougher-to-conquer House. Kerry said that was the first he’d head of it.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) entered into the hearing record 150 occasions in the past 40 years when America has deployed its forces into dangerous or hostile situations — “and in most of those, we had limited purpose, limited deployment, and the cost was so limited that we’ve forgotten the incident involved.”
“You should focus on punishing and deterring Assad by hitting valuable assets that will demonstrate to him that it was a military mistake to hit Ghouta with — with chemical weapons,” said Sherman. “Even air or naval assets unrelated to the delivery of chemical weapons will make that lesson clear to him.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said when Congress comes back into session he plans to introduce a resolution “to authorize the president to establish a specialized court, the Syrian War Crimes Tribunal, to help hold accountable all those on either side, including Assad, who have slaughtered and raped in Syria.”
“Where did the chemical weapons come from?” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) asked.
“Well, the Russians supply them. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves,” Hagel responded.
Syrian opposition sources have said that the munitions used to deliver the chemical weapons to the Damascus suburb may have either been made locally (though not by amateurs, as evidenced by the rocket construction, effectiveness and serial numbering) or by one of Syria’s allies, and are believed to be designed to fit the Iranian Falaq-2 or Fajr-5 rocket launcher.
One opposition source located a Russian ATK-EB mechanical delay fuze, or ignition device, near an impact sites. The fuzes have long been found at strike sites from Assad’s forces, and generally bear dates from the end of the Soviet era. Intelligence community representatives have not responded to PJM comment requests on the delivery system.
“With the president’s red line, why was there no call for military response in — in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration, or the upcoming debt limit vote?” Wilson continued. “Again, why was there no call for military response four months ago when the president’s red line was crossed?”
“The president made a decision to change his policy, but he didn’t believe that the evidence was so overwhelming. It was significant, it was clear it had happened, but on a scale that he felt merited the increase of assistance and — and the announcements that he made with respect to the type of aid that he would provide the opposition. So he did respond,” Kerry said. “…He upgraded what we were doing very significantly.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) asked if preparation for the risk of retaliation was being figured into the plans.
“You know, there’s both conventional risks. That would be if he chose to use some of his long-range rockets to attack his neighbors or some of our facilities. There’s also asymmetric. You know, he could encourage the — some of the surrogates and proxies such as Lebanese Hezbollah to attack an embassy,” Dempsey said. “There’s actions he could probably seek to achieve in cyber, and we are alert to all of the possibilities. And our mitigating strategy is in the way we’ve positioned ourselves in the region.”
The hearing’s testiest exchange came when Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a week out from the one-year anniversary, brought up the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi.
“I can’t discuss the possibility of the U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war without also talking about Benghazi. The administration has a serious credibility issue with the American people due to the unanswered questions surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi almost a year ago,” Duncan said.
“When you factor in the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the AP and James Rosen issues, Fast and Furious, and the NSA spying programs, bottom line is that there’s a need for accountability and trust-building from the administration… In my opinion, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, Benghazi is germane to the discussions in Syria, because as you stated, Mr. Secretary, the world was and is watching for our response. But after almost a year of not bringing anyone to justice in Benghazi, they are watching our response.”
“The American people deserve answers before we move forward talking about military involvement in Syria,” Duncan continued, adding that after reviewing the classified evidence he doesn’t doubt chemical weapons were used.
Kerry challenged Duncan’s assertion that he’s “never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts,” saying, “I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it.”
“When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama; I can run a list of them,” Kerry continued. “And I am not gonna sit here and be told by you that I don’t have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this. We’re talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.”
“Four Americans lost their lives. I have sympathy for the people in Syria, and I do think there should be a worldwide response. But we should act cautiously,” Duncan replied.
“We are acting cautiously,” Kerry shot back. “We are acting so cautiously that the president of the United States was accused of not acting because he wanted to have sufficient evidence and he wanted to build the case properly.”
Supporters of the intervention want Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Council and a former political prisoner, and Gen. Salim Idris, a defector from Assad’s forces last year who now leads the Free Syrian Army, to come testify before Congress.
Kerry said Idris is traveling to London next week to meet with members of parliament after the recent defeat of Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to answer Assad’s chemical weapons usage.