|13 Surprising Things We Learned About Syria, the Obama Administration (and Poker)|
|Sep 7, 2013, 6:51 PM|
President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization for a military strike against Syria has evolved into a political, military and diplomatic rollercoaster featuring Capitol Hill hearings, fast-changing whip counts, and media blitzes by top Obama administration officials. Over the past week, we've seen the contours of the national conversation on Syria take shape, and it appears that the debate is just getting started. Here are 13 surprising things we learned -- and a few unanswered questions, too:
Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this week that if there was another chemical attack in Syria weeks or months after a first round of air strikes (should President Obama ultimately go ahead with them) the administration would consider going back and striking again. This revelation came just a few days after the president assured the nation that any intervention in Syria would not be an open-ended commitment. When asked whether the administration would strike Syria again if Assad launched another chemical weapons attack, and whether the president would consider going back to Congress for additional authorization, Kerry said that the administration would prefer that there's a "trigger" attached to the authorization that would allow a response. "If [Assad] were to come back and use chemical weapons again ... there would be a capacity to respond to that," he said. But on Thursday, when asked by MSNBC's Chris Hays about what the U.S. would do if Assad continued to use chemical weapons, even after a military strike, Kerry's response was that Assad won't use chemical weapons again. "Our belief is that Assad will not strike back," he said, noting that the Syrian president "hasn't struck back once against Israel," as an example of how the administration believes Assad would react. --Martha Raddatz and Dana Hughes
Kerry's assessment that the radical elements of the Syrian opposition only make up 15 to 25 percent of the 70,000 to 100,000 estimated opposition fighters and that overall rebel forces are more moderate than people think has been challenged. Both Reuters and The New York Times published stories this week disputing Kerry's claim, with Reuters citing U.S. government intelligence reports and the Times relying on reporting on the ground from Syria. But Kerry's argument was that even if the rebels are radicalized, a congressional decision to not authorize military strikes will only make the situation worse. Speaking about the al Qaeda-backed al-Nusrah and other extremist opposition groups, Kerry told a House committee on Wednesday, "One of the things that is concentrating the president's thinking about Syria and the reason for supporting the moderate opposition is to have a buttress against those folks who, if Syria continues to move in the direction it's been going, if there's an implosion, they will be strengthened. ... There will be more of them." --Dana Hughes
There was some confusion over whether Secretary of State John Kerry was leaving the door open to the U.S. committing "boots on the ground" in Syria. He told Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that "in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusrah or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements ... I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country."
The answer was picked up immediately by social media and especially by other senators, who expressed unhappiness with what sounded to them like Kerry's willingness to commit U.S. troops to the fight in Syria, an assertion Kerry quickly clarified.
"Let's shut that door now. All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility and I'm thinking out loud about how to protect America," said Kerry. "There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war." --Arlette Saenz and Dana Hughes
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel perked some ears at Wednesday's House Foreign Affairs hearing with a brief exchange in which he said Russia had supplied chemical weapons to Syria. Some Web outlets picked up on this and trumpeted the news that Russia was providing chemical weapons to Syria. It all happened in an exchange Hagel had with Republican Rep. Joe Wilson during which Hagel said it's not a secret that the Assad regime has significant stockpiles of chemical weapons. When Wilson asked where they'd come from, Hagel said, "Well, the Russians supply them. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."
By the end of the day, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little issued a statement clarifying Hagel's comments, explaining that the defense secretary was referring to the "well known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia." He pointed out that Syria has had a "decades-old, largely indigenous chemical weapons program," but he also acknowledged that Russia "provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program." --Luis Martinez
During a fiery exchange with Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., Kerry said that discussions about the Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack nearly a year ago had no place in Wednesday's hearing about military strikes in Syria. Duncan began his questioning by challenging whether the Obama administration can be trusted and held up a picture of Tyrone Woods, one of the Americans killed in Benghazi. Duncan said that Americans are demanding answers about the attack and also challenged Kerry's own professional history by saying that the former senator has never "advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts." He suggested the power of the executive branch was "so intoxicating" that Kerry had abandoned "past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly."
Kerry immediately took issue with the question and when Duncan tried to interrupt Kerry's response citing time constraints, Kerry cut him off.
"I'm going to finish, congressman. I am going to finish," said Kerry. "When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama -- I can run a list of them. And I am not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this."
Kerry then scolded Duncan about his references to Benghazi.
"This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn't be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity. And if we don't vote to do this, Assad will interpret from you that he's free to go and do this any day he wants to," Kerry said. "So let's draw the proper distinction here, congressman. We don't deserve to drag this into yet another Benghazi discussion when the real issue here is whether or not the Congress is going to stand up for international norms with respect to dictators that have only been broken twice until Assad: Hitler and Saddam Hussein. And if we give license to somebody to continue that, shame on us." --Dana Hughes
As Kerry ended his opening statement, a protestor started shouting at the secretary of state.
"Secretary Kerry, the American people say no to war. Ban ki Moon says no to war. The pope says no to war. We don't want another war," she said before being escorted out.
Kerry noted that when he first testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he held very similar feelings to that protestor.
"That is exactly why this is so important," Kerry said. "We are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country and that Congress will act representing the American people, and I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view." --Arlette Saenz
On Tuesday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey complained about the leak of military planning and targeting for the Syria operation. But on Wednesday, he confirmed everything that had been reported in the media a week earlier. Dempsey said targets are "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security. Secondly, [targets involve] the means of delivery. And the third [group of targets include] those things that the regime uses -- for example, air defense, long-range missiles and rockets -- in order to protect those chemical weapons or, in some cases, deliver them. So that target package is still being refined as I sit here with you." He believed the military would be effective in hitting those targets and minimizing collateral damage at the president's request. --Luis Martinez
Iran has increasingly become one of the administration's top talking points in the case for military action against Syria.
In his Rose Garden remarks on Saturday, Aug. 31, President Obama did not mention Iran a single time in announcing his decision to take military action against Syria and seek congressional approval. But Iran came up several times in the testimony by Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey in front of Congress this week. Kerry mentioned Iran four times in his brief opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, repeatedly tying U.S. action in Syria to deterrence of Iran's nuclear threat.
"Iran is hoping you look the other way," Kerry bluntly told members of the committee. "Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention if not to put it to the test."
Hagel also invoked Iran.
"Our refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," he said.
Several members of the committee on both sides of the aisle appeared to share the administration's recognition that inaction in Syria would embolden Iran.
"Iran will view us as a paper tiger" if we don't act, warned Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Doing nothing "would guarantee ... an emboldened Iran," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "It will also send a message to the world that there is no red line that they should fear crossing. So Iran will move forward toward nuclear weapons."
A White House official told ABC News that all individual and conference calls to members of Congress will focus on the "fundamental case that failure to take action ... risks emboldening Assad and his key allies -- Hezbollah and Iran. ... Anyone who is concerned about Iran and its efforts in the region should support this action." --Devin Dwyer
Despite the fact that Russia has blocked three different U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict began and has repeatedly said it doesn't believe the evidence the United States is presenting, Kerry offered a defense of the Washington relationship with the Kremlin at Tuesday's hearing.
"It's important not to get into unnecessary struggle with the Russians over this," said Kerry, who said that he thinks the Russians "are serious" about finding a political solution. Kerry said it's important to remember Russia cooperates with the United States on Iran and the START treaty and other "major issues."
But that was before President Vladimir Putin accused Kerry of "lying" about the presence of al Qaeda or al Nusra in Syria. In televised remarks during a meeting Wednesday, Putin said that Kerry testified on the Hill this week that al Qaeda is not active in Syria.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that Kerry "wasn't losing sleep" over Putin's "preposterous" comments.
"Secretary Kerry is ... a decorated combat veteran. He's had more words aimed at him, so he's not losing sleep after such a preposterous comment that was based on an inaccurate quote and was completely mischaracterized," said Psaki.
Meanwhile, Putin and Obama, who have been criticizing each other openly all week, finally met at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they smiled and shook hands for about seven or eight seconds.
Putin approached Obama with "small talk" at Friday's plenary session, where both men agreed to continue discussion, moving to a corner of the room, pulling up two chairs and sitting down, according to a senior administration official. The two men had a one-on-one chat that lasted about a half an hour. The official said they spoke almost entirely about Syria, but the conversation wasn't "acrimonious," with both Putin and Obama talking about how they might work together on Syria in the future. They did not, however, come to any agreements. The conversation wasn't entirely private, the official said, and the rest of the world leaders who were in attendance watched with interest as the two leaders who were the talk of the summit engaged. --Dana Hughes, Kirit Radia and Devin Dwyer
The debate over what to do in Syria is producing strange bedfellows in Congress. Conservative and liberal members, who on a normal day might disagree on the color of the sky, are aligned on both sides. After meeting with President Obama earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., two of the president's most vocal opponents on issues such as the budget and health care, jumped on board to support his plan. In the Senate, Republicans including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida found allies in Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut to oppose the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's resolution authorizing the use of military force against Syria. When it comes to what Congress decides to do regarding Syria, it looks like party lines won't matter as much as usual on this vote of conscience. --Arlette Saenz and John Parkinson
Pokergate officially came to the U.S. Senate after a Washington Post photographer snapped a picture Tuesday of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., playing poker on his phone as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey make the administration's case on Syria.
After he was caught in the act, McCain joked about the poker game on Twitter Tuesday night. The incident followed McCain to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Wednesday to consider the use of force against Syria. As he took his seat, McCain waved his phone at photographers to prove he wasn't playing electronic poker again, and Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the committee, jokingly gave his colleague a warning about electronic games in the committee room. "The committee has rules against electronic games," Menendez quipped. --Arlette Saenz
ABC News' whip count continued to build, with more than 220 members opposed or leaning against military intervention in Syria in the U.S. House of Representatives as of Friday. On the other hand, less than 50 members of the House were in favor or leaning towards supporting a military strike. The numbers in the Senate were also not particularly good for President Obama. --John Parkinson
Those who watch Congress were surprised this week when Boehner came out to the White House driveway and expressed support for strikes. Then, Cantor put out a paper statement in support. But those acts didn't build momentum. Even down the leadership line, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continued to say they are undecided. --John Parkinson