Obama faces scepticism in Congress over plans to attack Syria

Analysts and lawmakers doubt the Obama administration can make good on its pledge that a strike will be of limited scope and duration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 4:36am

The first week of US President Barack Obama's bid to build political unity on Syria by bringing in Congress ended in near disarray, with top cabinet officers and Pentagon officials providing murky or even contradictory responses to inquiries from frustrated lawmakers and reporters.

The high-drama hearings, stakeouts, speeches and briefings about the US military response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons last month raised more questions than they answered. All the clamour on Capitol Hill, at the White House and beyond left Americans uncertain about the costs, consequences and extent of a risky intervention that is still in the works.

Analysts and lawmakers across the political spectrum were openly sceptical that Obama and his aides could make good on their repeated pledges that a US strike would be of limited scope and short duration, likely delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles and with no American troops in Syria.

"It's very difficult to hold the line at this kind of halfway position the president has proposed," said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department adviser under Obama who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"This is a very important step down a slippery slope, and it's unlikely to be the last step."

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's assurances to Congress during two days of testimony that "the president is not asking you to go to war", a bipartisan consensus emerged that once the bombs start flying, all bets are off - especially in a country such as Syria, torn by two years of civil strife and, more broadly, in a region as volatile as the Middle East.

While Obama won a compromised victory with narrow passage of a war resolution by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators from his own party defected.

Much of the damage to Obama's cause was self-inflicted by the men he sent to Capitol Hill. Kerry began his testimony by saying no US warriors would set foot in Syria. But he then sketched a compelling scenario - one in which, he said, "Syria imploded" or chemical weapons might be close to "falling into the hands" of al-Qaeda-linked rebels - that might require them to do so. That set off a fusillade of questions from lawmakers about the apparent contradiction, forcing him to backtrack.

In the coming days, "no boots on the ground" became the Obama team's mantra. At a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's spokesman, George Little, used the phrase 18 times in 45 minutes, uttering it so often that reporters dubbed the Syria mission Operation No Boots On the Ground.

Kerry also raised eyebrows when he testified that 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the Syrian opposition fighting Assad is made up of "bad guys" - radical Islamists, many with al-Qaeda ties. That range flew in the face of much higher figures provided to lawmakers by intelligence agencies.

The week's lobbying has had such little success that authorisation for a strike would likely fail in Congress if the vote were today, as sceptical lawmakers consider heeding war-weary constituents who firmly oppose military intervention.

"I think for many, absent of being convinced, 'no' is going to be the answer" on Syria intervention, congressman Kevin Cramer said.

The Senate is expected to vote this week on allowing a limited attack, while the House is due to vote within the next two weeks.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse