Syria has been on the tip of every analyst’s tongue for weeks. Were chemical weapons used outside of Damascus? Who used them? How many people were killed? What will the U.S. do? The answers to most of these questions remain elusive; While chemical weapons likely were used (the definitive UN report is still weeks away) and western governments claim that they were used by the regime against those who supported or were suspected of supporting the opposition, the evidence for such claims remains classified or otherwise inaccessible to the public and the death toll ranges from a few hundred to well over 1,000.
The U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons is becoming clearer and clearer. After President Obama surprised nearly everyone after calling for official Congressional approval for the use of military force against the regime in Syria, high level administration officials began making their stump speeches, first on Sunday morning talk shows and then in Congressional hearings. While the wisdom of military intervention is as contested among foreign policy professionals and academics as it is amongst the esteemed members of the American legislative branch, those pushing for strikes of some kind are found in both parties, both in the administration and in Congress. As we saw in committee meetings earlier this week, the disagreements can be tense but often focus not on whether or not to intervene, but how strong that intervention should be. As the House and Senate continue to debate the issue, it will become more and more important to know who stands where, and what pushing for intervention really means.
While the president has equivocated over the enforcement of his “red-line” after previous evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he surprised analysts and his staff alike in calling for Congressional approval for a series of limited strikes against the regime. Although he has largely relied on Secretary Kerry to make the case before Congress, the president claims the U.S. will both demonstrate the resolve of the American and international community and deter the future use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
Our current Secretary of State has been the most vocal among administration officials in support of plans to conduct limited strikes against regime targets as punishment for using chemical weapons in Ghouta. He has consistently echoed the president’s claims that failure to respond to the regime’s transgression of international norms would not only embolden the regime to conduct more chemical attacks on rebel and civilian populations, but also the Iranian and North Korean governments. While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday, Kerry laid out two main goals for U.S. policy in the Syrian Civil War: the removal of Assad, and the creation of a pluralistic, democratic state which respects minority rights. Amid questions from senators critical of the strikes, the most notable among them from Sen. McCain, Kerry put the strikes in the broad context of American policy towards the conflict — limited strikes aimed at “degrading” the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities would have “downstream effects” on the military balance-of-power in the country which, coupled with the influx of American weapons that will begin soon and the humanitarian aid being given to Syrian refugees, work towards the national interest of the U.S.
Although Secretary Hagel has been less vocal than his State counterpart, seemingly becoming an almost forgotten participant in the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has nevertheless toed the administration line, calling for strikes to “degrade and deter,” now almost the catchphrase in the rally to pass the proposed AUMF.
Senators McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Graham (R.-S.C.) have long been critical of the administration’s policy towards the conflict in Syria. While many Congressional Republicans have been critical, especially those in the House in recent days, of the policy because they question the U.S.' fundamental interests in the country and the conflict, McCain and Graham are of the opposite opinion: the proposed limited punitive strikes against regime targets do not go far enough, that American forces should more actively intervene on the side of the rebels. McCain, frustrated with the administration’s lack of action in the conflict, organized his own impromptu trip to Syria to meet with the opposition.