Frustrated by the muddle that is U.S. policy in Syria, a growing cadre of hawkish Democrats are putting pressure on the White House to finally outline to the public and to Congress its objectives in the protracted 2 ½ year civil war.
The latest and perhaps most outspoken Democrat to prod the administration is Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who tells The Cable he’s tired of waiting for the White House to articulate its goals in Syria — and how it hopes to achieve them.
"For too long there really hasn’t been a clearly articulated strategy," he says. "The administration has yet to make it clear to the American people what’s at stake here… With Tehran and Hezbollah taking the offensive, a bad result in Syria could greatly strengthen the Iranian regime and make it more difficult for us to constrain their nuclear ability."
"Those basic strategic interests need to be stated over and over again by the president, by the secretary of state and by the national security team in general," he continues. "But that just hasn’t been happening."
Casey and his aides expressed frustration that the rollout of the administration’s more assertive policy in Syria on June 13 amounted to a press release by Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. Following the release, Secretary of State John Kerry met with lawmakers on the Hill last week for classified briefings about U.S. efforts to aid the rebels.
While Casey declined to discuss specifics of the briefing due to its classified nature, he said there was not "nearly enough clarity" about how the U.S. planned to arm the rebels. And as far as heavy weaponry, "I have no information that either anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons are going to be provided … I would hope that in the future those would be offered," he said.
Casey joins a growing cohort of Democrats clamoring for a more assertive policy. Last week, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, joined Arizona Republican John McCain in signing a letter urging the president to "take more decisive military actions in Syria to change the balance of power on the ground against [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad." In the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ranking Democrat Eliot Engel has been pushing for lethal military assistance since March, when he introduced his Free Syria Act legislation authorizing the shipment of weapons. In May, the Democratically-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill authorizing lethal aid by a bipartisan vote of 15-3.
To be fair, the president did discuss his Syria policy at the prodding of Charlie Rose in an interview last Monday. He explained his initial caution about arming the rebels — informed by the mounting evidence that much of the Syrian opposition includes Al Qaeda aligned extremists. "We’re not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni," he said. He also noted the humanitarian dimension. "The United States has humanitarian interests in the region, we’ve seen at least 100,000 people slaughtered inside of Syria, many of them women, children, innocent civilians," he said "And the United States always has an interest in preventing that kind of bloodshed when possible."
However, it appears that his policy has yet to satisfy some of the more hawkish members of his own party, much less his Republican colleagues including McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. By the president’s own admission with Rose, he hasn’t really unveiled a new approach to Syria.
"I’m not sure you can characterize this as a new policy," Obama said.