Senate panel authorizes Syria strike

Foreign Relations Committee votes 10-7 in favor of limited action against military targets

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s efforts to launch limited military strikes against Syria cleared a major hurdle Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force.

The divided body voted 10 to 7 to approve a compromise legislation on military action, which now clears the way for a final vote in the full Senate on whether to authorize the administration’s plan for a series of missile attacks. The vote included Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue.

The United States has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons during an Aug. 21 attack that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. 

While broadly in line with Obama’s wishes, the resolution limits punitive missile strikes to 60 days -- with a possible 30-day extension if the president consults with Congress again. It also explicitly rules out the use of U.S. ground forces, though the administration had already said it would not put "boots on the ground."

The authorization still faces significant resistance in Congress, where many lawmakers fear it could lead to a prolonged U.S. military involvement in Syria's two-year civil war and spark an escalation of regional violence.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the resolution next week. The House of Representatives must also approve the measure.

The committee vote came after the two panel leaders -- Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. -- crafted a compromise to meet concerns from some lawmakers that Obama's resolution was too open-ended.

Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters


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The committee adopted amendments proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with the policy goals of degrading Assad's ability to use chemical weapons, increasing support for rebel forces and reversing battlefield momentum to create conditions for his removal.

Earlier Wednesday, Obama said the global community's integrity is at stake if no action is taken against the Syrian government. 

"The international community's credibility is on the line, and America and Congress' credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to these kinds of international norms," Obama said, referring to the use of chemical weapons. "How credible is the international community when it says, 'This is an international norm that has to be observed'?"

Speaking in Sweden, where he was holding a bilateral meeting with the country's prime minister ahead of Thursday's G-20 summit in Russia, Obama called for action. 

"I do think that we have to act, because if we don't, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue a resolution and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity," said Obama, who reiterated his stance that any action would be limited in scope. 

The Senate committee’s vote came a day after the same body held a hearing about the administration’s proposed military strikes with Secretary of State John Kerry, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching," Kerry said during testimony, "not just to see what we decide, but it's watching to see how we make this decision, whether in a dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice."

The Kerry, Dempsey and Hagel also briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

While the timetable for a vote in the House remains uncertain, the adminstration could face more difficult prospects there.

One senior Repubulican aide in the House predicted that most of the 50 or so Republicans backed by the anti-big government Tea Party movement will vote against the President, while a number of Democratic liberals are also expected to vote against a resolution.

But the president can still count on plenty of support in that body. Obama gained a key vote of confidence Tuesday when Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner indicated that he would support the president's plan on Syria.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., told Al Jazeera that he was firmly with the administration.

"Individuals are talking about how the credibility of the U.S. is on the line, I think to the contrary," Meeks said. "I think the international community's reputation is on the line."

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting tomorrow's G-20 summit, questioned Western evidence again Wednesday. He accused Kerry outright of lying when, in urging Congress to approve strikes on Syria, Kerry played down the role of al Qaeda in the rebel forces. "Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this," Putin said.

"He is lying and knows he is lying. It's sad."

Earlier, Putin had said in a pre-summit interview with the Associated Press that he could not absolutely "rule out" Russia supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution to punish Assad -- if it could be proved he had used poison gas.

On Saturday, Obama announced that he would seek a congressional vote before carrying out strikes in Syria. Congress has already been holding both public and closed-door hearings ahead of Sept. 9, when the legislative body reconvenes after a monthlong recess.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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