Democrats say Trump needs to get authorization from Congress if he chooses to strike the Assad regime, a decision that may come before the secretary of state visits Moscow in just a few days.
President Donald Trump faced growing pressure Thursday from a handful of hawkish fellow Republicans to take military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, and the U.S. leader acknowledged that “something should happen” after a chemical weapons attack killed dozens in the war-torn country.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, insisted in a joint statement that Assad “must pay a punitive cost for this horrific attack.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed those making “groundless” accusations against Assad, whom Moscow has backed militarily. Former U.S. officials warned that limited military action may not deter the Syrian strongman for long — and could lead to an ugly imbroglio if Russians or Iranians are killed. And several Democratic lawmakers, while decrying Assad, said Trump must ask Congress for authorization before making any military moves.
Amid the conflicting messages, Trump told reporters Thursday the attack “shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” but he did not specify what he would do in response.
“I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen,” Trump said of Assad.
The messages directed at Trump echoed what Barack Obama faced in 2013, when he considered launching airstrikes against the Syrian regime after Assad crossed the then-U.S. president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. The many voices also underscored the enduring complexity of the six-year-old conflict in Syria, where Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has used brutal force to wear down rebels trying to oust him and where the Islamic State also controls territory.
On Wednesday, Trump, in a remarkable shift from his past willingness to leave Assad alone, declared that the Syrian had crossed “many lines” in this week’s poison gas attack in Idlib province. CNN reported Thursday that Trump has told some lawmakers he is weighing military action. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump had talked to Middle East allies about the possibility of establishing “safe zones” to protect Syrians, a fuzzy concept that might include use of U.S. troops. But it was not clear if Trump was weighing airstrikes, deploying ground troops, covert actions or a combination of steps to punish Assad.
That Trump has reached this point has puzzled and rattled many close watchers of the Syrian situation. Just last week, top Trump aides, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, had indicated that the Trump administration did not considering removing Assad a priority, breaking with the Obama administration’s approach. And in 2013, when Obama pondered airstrikes after far deadlier chemical attacks, Trump repeatedly urged him not to bomb Syria.
Now, former officials and other observers wonder if Trump will follow through with his new resolve to hold Assad accountable.
“It’s not clear Trump has thought through the consequences or is prepared to accept them,” said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign relations who advised Obama on Middle East policy. “The risks of military action are even greater now than they were then, since airstrikes to punish Assad would likely kill Russians deployed on Syrian military bases. And if Russia and Syria respond to U.S. strikes by escalating against the opposition or more civilians, is Trump prepared to escalate in turn, or will he then back down?”
NBC News, citing two unnamed U.S. military officials, reported Thursday that Syrian fixed-wing aircraft dropped the chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib earlier this week. The report came despite denials by the Syrian government, which insisted that an airstrike had hit a warehouse where rebels had been storing the deadly agents.
McCain and Graham called for the United States to lead an international coalition to debilitate the Syrian Air Force so that it cannot participate in more bombings.
In a separate conversation with reporters, Graham said Trump should not bother to seek authorization from Congress, as Obama briefly did in 2013. Lawmakers never gave authorization then, and Obama decided not to take military action, instead striking a deal with Assad to remove much, though apparently not all, of his chemical weapons stockpile.
“The last thing I want to do is to screw it up like we did last time,” Graham said. “My advice to the president is: ‘Just do it.’”
Several Democrats took exception to that.
“If there’s any contemplation about military action against Syria, the president would need to do what President Obama did and come to Congress with it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Kaine has pushed bills to give Congress more say in the use of military force in the Middle East, something he believes would put the administration’s actions on stronger legal footing.
Source : POLITICO