Senate resolution sets deadline, bars ground forces in Syria

Kerry tells congressional committee Netanyahu can deal with any ‘misguided’ attack by Assad

From left to right: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel answer questions at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
From left to right: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel answer questions at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — A Senate resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria would bar American ground troops from combat operations and set a deadline for any action.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the draft resolution that the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on Wednesday.

The measure would set a time limit of 60 days for any mission, and it says the president can extend that for 30 days more unless Congress has a vote of disapproval.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the committee, and Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican, agreed on the measure late Tuesday. The White House had no immediate reaction to the draft resolution before Obama departed for Sweden and then Russia, to attend the G-20 summit.

At a committee hearing earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey provided extensive testimony on the Obama administration’s plans and intentions regarding a strike against the Bashar Assad regime.

Kerry had signaled earlier that the troop restriction was acceptable to the administration. “There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground,” he said.

“President Obama is not asking America to go to war,” Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, “This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.”

Obama said on Tuesday that he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad’s action “poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.”

The Obama administration says 1,429 people died from a chemical attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad’s government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.

Kerry said at the hearing that he spoke Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who assured the top US diplomat that he was certain Israel could deal with any “misguided” attack from the Assad regime that may come in response to US military action.

Appearing irritated at times throughout the three-hour hearing, Dempsey told the committee that Russia may boost its military assistance to Syria if the US were to attack.

“There is some indication that they [the Russians] have assured the regime that if we destroy something, they can replace it,” Dempsey said.

Senator John McCain probed Kerry regarding the type of rebels fighting in Syria. McCain and Kerry agreed that the majority of the rebels are not affiliated with al-Qaeda, as some experts have said recently.

McCain stated and Kerry affirmed that the Islamist extremist factions in Syria were consolidating their power over rebel-held areas in the north of the country.

The secretary of state reiterated that a US strike is necessary to maintain American credibility and deterrence, and that it would send a message to other countries in the region.

“I cannot emphasize enough how much they are looking at us now, making judgments about us for the long term and how critical the choice that we make here will be, not just to this question of Syria but to the support we may or may not anticipate in the Mideast peace process, to the future of Egypt, to the transformation of the Middle East, to the stability of the region and other interests that we have.

“There’s no way to separate one thing from all the rest. Relationships are relationships — they are integrated and that’s why this is so important.”

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution. He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the UN Charter or if approved by the organization’s Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.

In the Middle East, Israel and the US conducted a joint missile test Tuesday over the Mediterranean in a display of military might in the region.

Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike against Assad under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.

Recent presidents have all claimed the authority to undertake limited military action without congressional backing. Some have followed up with such action.

Obama said he, too, believes he has that authority, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said during the day that even Congress’ refusal to authorize the president wouldn’t negate the power of the commander in chief.

Still, the president also has stated that the United States will be stronger if lawmakers grant their support. But neither Obama nor his aides has been willing to state what options would be left to him should Congress reject his call.

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