Senators ask Obama to strike Syria

The top two Democratic and Republican senators on national security issued a new bipartisan plea for President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syria, including missile strikes and arming opposition rebels, in pointed floor speeches. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the ...

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

The top two Democratic and Republican senators on national security issued a new bipartisan plea for President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syria, including missile strikes and arming opposition rebels, in pointed floor speeches.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the floor with a long list of limited U.S. military interjections into the conflict. They argued such moves were not only possible, but necessary to save lives and prevent spillover instability in the Middle East.

The two men wrote Obama in March calling for intervention, but Thursday's speeches come with specific military options and far more bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a stronger response to Bashar al-Assad's regime, especially since the White House's acknowledgement in late April that the intelligence community believes chemical weapons have been used by Syria.

The top two Democratic and Republican senators on national security issued a new bipartisan plea for President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syria, including missile strikes and arming opposition rebels, in pointed floor speeches.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the floor with a long list of limited U.S. military interjections into the conflict. They argued such moves were not only possible, but necessary to save lives and prevent spillover instability in the Middle East.

The two men wrote Obama in March calling for intervention, but Thursday’s speeches come with specific military options and far more bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a stronger response to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, especially since the White House’s acknowledgement in late April that the intelligence community believes chemical weapons have been used by Syria.

"No one should think that the United States has to act alone, put boots on the ground, or destroy every Syrian air defense system to make a difference for the better in Syria," McCain said. "We have more limited options at our disposal — including limited military options — that can make a positive impact on this crisis."

McCain said the United States should at least target Syria’s ballistic missiles, preventing the possibility that they could be fitted to carry chemical weapons.

"We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses. Similar weapons could be used to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make Assad’s forces think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria from Assad’s aerial bombing and missile attacks. 

"Would any of these options immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But they could save innocent lives in Syria," said McCain.

Levin said the Armed Services Committee next week is scheduled to receive a classified briefing it requested from top Pentagon brass on military options for Syria. Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, DOD’s policy chief, and Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, the J-5, or director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Staff, are slated to appear.  The committee  will, he said, "urge them to carry a message back to the administration that it is time to up the military pressure on Assad."

But the chairman did not wait to give his own suggestion.

"In my view, the facts on the ground today make the consequences of inaction too great. It is time for the United States and our allies to use ways to alter the course of events in Syria by increasing the military pressure on Assad," Levin said.

Levin asked Obama to support Turkey in creating a "safe zone" inside Syria, deploying Patriot batteries close to the border, "neutralize" any Syria threats, and arm "vetted" opposition rebels.

He also argued that military action would give Secretary of State John Kerry political "backing" to bring Russia into a solution to end the conflict, while continuing to condemn Russia for supporting Assad’s regime.

Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who on Monday introduced a bill to arm the rebels, said the threat of a humanitarian crisis in Jordan — which has seen half a million registered Syrian refugees cross its border, already — was reason enough for prompt action. King Abdullah II of Jordan told senators during his April visit, Menendez said, that the population of Jordan already has increased by 20 percent due to Syrian inflows and he fears it could double.

"We cannot afford for that ally to ultimately find itself in a position in which it could very well collapse," Menendez said.

"I would suggest a bipartisan consensus is forming in the United State Senate that now is time to do more, not less, when it comes to Syria" said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., including arming "the right rebels, the right opposition, with the right weapons."

Graham said there is now enough bipartisan support to "turn the tide in Washington," calling the trend a "monumental sea change."

"To the opposition: this is a great day for you. To Assad: this seals your fate," Graham said.

Graham also tried to connect the Syrian conflict to the specter of Islamist-inspired bombings in the United States.

"There is enough chemical weapons in Syria to kill thousands if not millions of Americans and people who are our allies," said Graham, noting that he’s worried Syrian chemical weapons could end up being used inside the United States.

"The next bomb that goes off in America may have more than nails and glass in it."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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