The Cable

Congress’ Doves Rethinking U.S. Intervention After Syria’s ‘Chemical’ Attacks

For months, a group of dovish lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been fighting against U.S. military involvement in Syria. But after Wednesday’s stunning allegations of a massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, even some of these doves are opening the door, just a bit, to intervention in the Syria’s horrific civil war. "If it ...

WASHINGTON - JUNE 5: The U.S. Capitol is shown June 5, 2003 in Washington, DC. Both houses of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives meet in the Capitol. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

For months, a group of dovish lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been fighting against U.S. military involvement in Syria. But after Wednesday’s stunning allegations of a massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, even some of these doves are opening the door, just a bit, to intervention in the Syria’s horrific civil war.

"If it looks like this is the beginning of a long term chemical weapons campaign from Assad, even I would reevaluate whether the United States needs to step in," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told The Cable on Thursday.

In May, Murphy was the only senator to join Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul in support of a defeated amendment to prohibit weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels. He urged caution and spoke about the risks of intervention at the time. And, for the moment, he remains opposed to U.S. military entanglement in Syria. However, when pressed in an interview, Murphy conceded that he may reconsider that position after a series of alleged nerve gas attacks that Syrian opposition forces say killed as many as 1,800 people. Eyewitnesses say many of the victims were children.

"If the Assad regime has begun a campaign of systematic chemical weapons attacks, clearly that’s going to alter even my analysis," Murphy said.

And he isn’t the only skeptic of intervention who’s now open to the possibility — however remote — of greater U.S. involvement. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), one of the House’s most vocal opponents of arming the Syrian rebels, told The Cable on Thursday that he’s now open to U.S. forces bombing the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons delivery systems.

"I think we ought to look at ways of degrading Assad’s chemical weapons use in the future," he said. "Some of the mechanisms Assad is using to deliver chemical weapons we could potentially take kinetic action against." ("Kinetic action" is the military euphemism for striking a target with bombs, missiles, or other weaponry.)

Both lawmakers stressed their deep reluctance about further U.S. intervention in Syria and Murphy said he’d only consider it if there was clear evidence of a continued chemical weapons assault by Assad — something that has yet to be proven. Still, Murphy and Schiff’s sober reluctance stands in stark contrast to a groundswell of hawkish lawmakers clamoring for a strong response from the U.S. military in light of the alleged chemical attack.

"The U.S. has two options: continue to largely stand on the sidelines as the regime slaughters its own people, or tip the balance of power against a brutal dictator by degrading its ability to attack civilians," said Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday. "If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon." 

Sen. John McCain echoed Engel’s enthusiasm on Thursday, saying intervention in Syria could be done "easily."

"We can supply the right kind of weapons to rebels and to establish a no-fly zone by moving patriot missiles up to the border. This can be done very easily," McCain said.

As it stands, the Syrian opposition claims that authorities fired an onslaught of chemically-laced rockets on Wednesday killing between 1,000 and 1,800 people. The Assad regime calls the claims "absolutely baseless." On Thursday, a State Department official explained the difficulty of making any determination on the attack in a timely manner.

"At this time, we are not able to conclusively determine whether chemical weapons were used," the official told The Cable. "One of the problems is access — we have long called for full, unfettered access from the Syrian government."

Meanwhile, eyewitnesses on the ground have described the attack in the most harrowing of terms.

Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition activist in the town of Douma, told The Cable during a Skype conversation that when the attacks first came, she thought it was no big deal. Then she went to the local clinic. "Usually, when attacks like this happen, we see it’s injured people, but usually very few. So when we got the news yesterday — two after midnight – we thought it was the same thing," said Zaitouneh. "Then we got terrible, terrible news — hundreds of people at the medical points. First time we see this much injured people."

"It was something different this time. They’re not able to breathe. Eyes very red. Circles in the eyes very narrow. They cannot see very well. Their mouths, something comes out white,"  Zaitouneh added.

The victims had a range of symptoms. Some were in shock — one little girl couldn’t even recognize her own mother. A handful of others were convulsing. "The nurses, they’re holding [live] bodies that were shocking. Moving without willingness. Their hands were moving without willingness," Zaitouneh remembered.

Convulsions, constricted pupils, blurred vision, and impaired breathing are all classic signs of nerve gas exposure.

Razan Zaitouneh stayed in touch with friends in nearby towns by phone; travel was impossible, she said, because "the regime was shelling everywhere." When she was finally able to leave and move to other towns, she began to see hundreds of people killed.

"The dead bodies — this is the strange thing — the dead bodies, there were hundreds. And there were two kinds." The first continued to have foam come out of their mouths. "Another kind — blood came out from their mouths and noses."

But skepticism remains about the veracity of opposition claims.

"A major concern is the timing," former Defense Department intelligence analyst John McLeary wrote in an influential defense newsletter. A team of U.N. weapons inspectors is in Damascus with the permission of the Assad government, he noted. "The opposition has a strong interest in attracting the attention of the U.N. team, or any potential outside source of assistance, any way it can."

And while there have been dozens of videos allegedly taken from the attack and uploaded to YouTube, exactly what that footage shows is unclear. American intelligence officials and outside experts believe they show the tell-tale signs of some sort of nerve gas attack. But they can’t be sure.

"There are pictures, lots of video, lots of primary information as well but we are still trying to make sense of it," said Rafal Rohozinski, the CEO of the SecDev Group, which is under contract from the State Department to provide secure communications software to Syrian activists and monitor social media there. "There are some aspects which are almost too picture-perfect and unexplained, like why so much information is getting out even though the zone itself is tightly controlled. It is really too early to make any assessments, but certainly there is more gray around this event  than most we have tracked in the past."

Yet amid the haze of confusion remains a desire by members of Congress, the White House, and the State Department to do something. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. "If this truly was a massive chemical weapons attack, it’s very serious," said Murphy. "But frankly … the question still remains: Will U.S. arms make the situation better or worse? I still argue that we can’t definitively show it will make the situation better."

With additional reporting by David Kenner 

 Twitter: @NoahShachtman

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