White House Urges Lawmakers to Back Syria Strike

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens at right as Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Top U.S. officials urged lawmakers to support an American-led military strike against Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians.

A trio of senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, appeared today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to press for a limited air campaign against Syria. President Barack Obama has put a decision on hold to seek congressional approval for an attack.

The White House has "high confidence" that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, in an Aug. 21 gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, according to an unclassified assessment of the incident.

"Now is not the time for arm-chair isolationism," Kerry said. "We must stand up and act."

During the hearing, which lasted almost four hours and was interrupted by anti-war protestors, Kerry echoed comments both he and President Obama made in recent days, saying the strike would be "limited" in nature and degrade the regime's ability to carry out similar attacks in the future, not overthrow the government.

While Kerry said the mission won't involve U.S. ground troops, or "boots on the ground," at one point he seemed to suggest otherwise -- an apparent misstatement he blamed on "thinking out loud." He emphasized that the administration isn't asking Congress for a declaration of war.

"There is a distinction between this and Iraq," Kerry said, referring to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the Middle Eastern country that was based in part on faulty intelligence about chemical weapons. "Here, we have weapons of mass destruction that we not only know do exist, they have been used."

Congress may in coming days vote on a resolution to authorize the use of military force in Syria. The Senate is holding hearings on the measure this week. The House of Representatives will return Sept. 9 to begin debating the matter.

Leaders of the House, including Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., support the president's push for a military response, even though a majority of Americans oppose it.

"I am going to support the president's call for action," Boehner told reporters today after he and Pelosi met with Obama at the White House. "I believe my colleagues should support this call for action."

In the Senate, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said using military force in Syria "is both justified and necessary." Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is still undecided, though he welcomed Obama's decision to seek congressional support.

Congressional approval, however, is far from guaranteed. In the House, especially, isolationists, tea-party conservatives and liberal doves have formed an unlikely alliance to oppose military action. Former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian who favors a limited foreign policy, said he welcomed the British Parliament's rejection last week of a measure to authorize an allied attack on Syria.

"It's a civil war," he told CNN, referring to the conflict in the war-torn country. "We don't have the authority."

More than 100,000 people have died in the two-year-old uprising against forces loyal to Assad, according to a June estimate from the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the death toll through a network of activists in the country.

Only 36 percent of the American public supports launching missiles against the Syrian regime, according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey released today, with almost six in ten opposing such a move.

During the hearing, Hagel said "key partners" such as France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other allies support U.S. military action in Syria.

The U.S. isn't seeking to resolve the civil war through military force, Hagel said. While the U.S. is committed to doing more to assist opposition fighters, it's also working toward negotiating a political solution, he said.

"Every witness here today -- Secretary Kerry, Gen. Dempsey, and myself -- has served in uniform, fought in war, and seen its ugly realities up close," Hagel said. "We are not unaware of the costs and ravages of war.  But we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests.  That is our highest responsibility."

The Defense Department has provided military options designed to degrade the regime's ability to use chemical weapons, Dempsey said.

The Navy has positioned five destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea to boost firepower should President Obama order strikes. The Stout is underway in the Mediterranean, where the guided-missile destroyer is joining the destroyers Ramage, Mahan, Barry and Gravely off the coast of Syria as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

The service has also deployed the aircraft carrier Nimitz, with about 80 aircraft aboard, and its battle group to the Red Sea in a buildup of naval forces in the region in the event of an attack.

Dempsey didn't provide details on how an air campaign would unfold, though experts have said it would probably involve launching a series of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or TLAMs, from the ships against Syria's command and control facilities, air defenses and aircraft.

"We continue to refine our targets," Dempsey told the Senate panel.

In response to a question from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has advocated for a strong U.S. intervention in Syria, Dempsey said he was never told to "change the momentum" of the conflict to favor the opposition.

One of the livelier exchanges occurred between Kerry and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the son of the former congressman, who complained that Obama intends to launch an attack even if Congress votes against it.

"If you do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us," Paul said to Kerry. "You're making us into theater. We'd play constitutional theater for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress."

Some senators criticized the broad language of the White House's draft resolution, which would authorize Obama to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" against Syria's use of chemical weapons "to prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors) within, to or from Syria of any weapons of mass destruction."

It also states that the use of force was also necessary "to protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee's chairman, said members of the panel may vote on the resolution Wednesday after meeting behind closed doors to discuss classified information about a potential military operation. The measure is expected to pass.

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