WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while administration officials agreed to explicitly rule out the use of U.S. combat troops in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
“You’re probably going to win” Congress’ backing, Rand Paul of Kentucky, a conservative senator and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.
The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has “enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary.”
Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes in the president’s requested legislation, rewriting it to restrict the type and duration of any military action that would be authorized, possibly including a ban on U.S. combat forces on the ground.
A new resolution was written Tuesday by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. It could get a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. Menendez is the chairman and Corker is the top Republican on the panel.
“There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground,” said Kerry, one of three senior officials to make the case for military intervention at the committee’s hearing.
Kerry said earlier in the hearing that he’d prefer not to have such language, hypothesizing the potential need for sending ground troops “in the event Syria imploded” or to prevent its chemical weapons cache from falling into the hands of a terrorist organization.
‘Not asking America to go to war’
“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 earlier in the day 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 Syrian President Bashar Assad’s action “poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.”
The administration said 1,429 died from the 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 were seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago.
A U.N. inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.
Syria shifting troops
As the Obama administration tries to prod Congress into backing armed action against Syria, the regime in Damascus is hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of bases into civilian areas.
Politically, Assad has gone on the offensive, warning in a rare interview with Western media that any military action against Syria could spark a regional war.
If the U.S. undertakes missile strikes, Assad’s reaction could have a major effect on the trajectory of Syria’s civil war. Neighboring countries could get dragged into a wider conflict, or it could be back to business as usual for a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people over 2½ years.
The main Western-backed opposition group said during the buildup last week to what seemed like an imminent U.S. attack, the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons into residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide.
A U.S. official confirmed there are indications the Syrian regime is taking steps to move some of its military equipment and bolster protection for defense facilities.
The trend inside Syria is likely to continue in the coming days now that the regime has won a reprieve with Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for military action.
“The Syrian regime knows there are 30-40 potential targets for U.S. airstrikes, and they have had ample time to prepare,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and director of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. “Half of them, if not more, have been evacuated, moved or camouflaged. This is the natural thing to do.”