Senate Foreign Relations chairman backs Syria strike

‘This is not a moment to look the other way, to blind ourselves to the horrifying images in Syria,’ says Sen. Robert Menendez

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)

A White House briefing for Congressional leaders Thursday night garnered at least one powerful ally for President Barack Obama’s insistence on a military response to Syria’s believed use of chemical weapons last week.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said late Thursday that “the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime requires a decisive response.

“Our national security interests, those of our allies, and regional stability are at risk as Syria is disintegrating into a failed state,” he wrote in a statement.

“This is not a moment to look the other way, to blind ourselves to the horrifying images in Syria, and to send the dangerous message to the global community that we would allow the use of a chemical weapons attack to take place with impunity. Vulnerable populations throughout the world, as well as some of our allies, and potentially even our Armed Forces could be future targets if we don’t respond. Tonight’s briefing reaffirmed for me that a decisive and consequential US response is justified and warranted to protect Syrians, as well as to send a global message that chemical weapons attacks in violation of international law will not stand,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), already expressed support for limited military action, saying after the phone briefing that “strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare” merited a military response.

A senior Democratic congressman, Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday that Obama had yet to make any decision on the timing or scope of a possible US military intervention in Syria.

Administration officials told lawmakers that they have “no doubt” that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, he added, though he said officials have provided limited evidence to Congress on the matter.

Administration officials held an unclassified 90-minute conference call with 26 senators and House members, including both houses’ minority and majority leaders, and the chairs and minority leaders of the foreign affairs and national security committees.

The call was intended “to brief them on the Administration’s thinking and seek their input on the US response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons near Damascus on August 21. The views of Congress are important to the President’s decision-making process,” a late Thursday statement from the White House explained, “and we will continue to engage with Members as the President reaches a decision on the appropriate US response to the Syrian government’s violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons.”

The Congressional leaders were briefed by the top security officials of the administration: National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James “Sandy” Winnefeld.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil and AP contributed to this report.

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