WASHINGTON -- Even with a visit to Capitol Hill, it appears President Barack Obama's case for a strike against Syria got more help from the Russians than from the United States Senate on Tuesday.
With support among lawmakers dwindling for a resolution to let Obama launch a bombing campaign aimed at curbing Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, Senate leaders agreed to delay a Wednesday vote on the authorization, in order to wait and see if a Russian effort to solve the standoff bears fruit.
Russian leaders said Tuesday they would work with Syria and the United Nations to determine whether Assad -- who allegedly killed some 1,400 Syrians in an Aug. 21 gas attack -- could hand over his chemical weapons to international forces.
Nevertheless, while lawmakers said they welcomed the new effort, few who opposed granting Obama authority for military strikes seemed inclined to change their positions, even if the authorization to use force is somehow tied to the international effort.
"As far as I'm concerned, that wouldn't move me in any way," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
"I think bombing Syria will destabilize the area, it makes it more likely that chemical weapons could be used on other countries, or fall into the hands of terrorists," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who guessed that 25 Republicans -- a majority of the Senate conference -- would vote against a resolution to use force. "I don't see a valid American interest in supporting a side of the war that's allied with al Qaeda."
According to sources in the room, Paul confronted the president on whether Obama would use military force even if Congress voted against it. In recent weeks, the Kentucky Republican has accused the president of reducing Congress's role to "constitutional theater" by leaving the window open to act in Syria regardless of how lawmakers vote.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) told reporters that Obama did not give Paul a "definitive answer."
While Obama may not have answered Paul, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the president was clear in his talk to Democrats that the White House believes it can take unilateral action. The president "made it very clear that he will act if he must. That's the message he gave us," Reid said.
Heller, who is against military strikes, said the president's key request from Republicans was for time to pursue negotiations with Russia.
"What he wants us to do basically is give him room to see if this diplomacy with Russia works out," Heller said.
Asked if there was a feeling that Republicans would be willing to do so, Heller said Obama's request wasn't met with a response -- although he pointed out that many lawmakers don't trust Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"To this moment, everyone's trying to figure out whether or not Putin's serious about this," he said.
The GOP senators met with Obama for more than an hour Tuesday, emerging to say the only new information was that any vote on the use of force authorization will be postponed until after United Nations inspectors deliver a report on Syria next week.
"If and when we have a vote, I intend to vote against authorizing military force in Syria, unless there are very significant changes in conditions on the ground," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another adamant opponent of intervention. He allowed that though he was skeptical of Putin, a Russian diplomatic success "would be a very beneficial outcome for the United States."
Senate Democrats characterized their 90-minute talk with Obama as productive, though many said members continued to express major concerns to the president about possible military intervention.
"Some of us are concerned about getting involved in a Syrian civil war which is bloody and complicated," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told reporters after the meeting.
According to The Huffington Post's latest tally, at least 40 senators are opposed or leaning towards opposing a Syria strike, while just 28 are tilting in favor of one.
While Obama did not seem to garner much support, he didn't seem to lose any either, with backers also pointing to the Russian effort.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has supported the use of military force in Syria, emerged from the meeting confident that a diplomatic resolution with both Syria and Russia could be achieved.
"If we get the [chemical weapons] physically out of Syria and know that it is outside of Assad's jurisdiction, I would chalk that as a win for the president," Kirk said.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said the president seemed "anxious" to see if Russia's proposal offered a viable pathway forward.
"It seems that this solution solves the problem of chemical weapons that are held by Syria," he said.
Sen Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued that the Senate should still pass a resolution to put some muscle behind the diplomatic effort.
"In my own view you have to have a realistic prospect of force in order for a political settlement to be achievable," Levin said. "I believe it is useful to connect the authorization to a refusal by Syria to disgorge their chemical weapons."
After making the pitch to senators, Obama went to prepare for an address to the nation. Kirk said the president was candid about his prospects of swaying public opinion, which is strongly against military intervention.
"He said, 'I'm good, but I'm not that good," Kirk said. "I took that as a good dose of political reality. The politics on this is upside-down."
BEFORE YOU GO
09/11/2013 6:02 PM EDT
U.S. Struggling To Destroy Its Own Chemical Weapons Stockpile
The Guardian reports that despite promising to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by 2012, the United States still has thousands of tons of lethal gas stored in facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.
According to reporter Paul Lewis, the most recent projections indicate that the weapons dump will not be complete until 2023 -- eight years after Russia said it will be fully rid of nerve agents.
"By missing its deadlines, the U.S. and other countries have arguably breached a founding principle of the same treaty cited as a reason to justify an attack on Syria," Lewis wrote.
Though Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is expected to be much smaller than those of Russia and the U.S., Lewis points out, the delays many countries have experienced in destroying their arsenals indicate the technological and political challenges likely in attempting to disarm Damascus.
Read the full story here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 5:24 PM EDT
Chomsky: 'The United States Is A Rogue State'
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky takes issue with Obama's characterization of the United States as "the anchor of global security" in Tuesday night's address.
Pointing to America's use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, as well as its role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders while ushering in dictatorships across Latin America, Chomsky fervently rejects the president's entire premise for taking military action in Syria.
"The United States is a rogue state," Chomsky said. "It doesn’t pay any attention to international law."
He notes the seeming hypocrisy in calling for Syria to adhere to internationally established norms against the possession of chemical weapons without demanding the same from other countries -- namely, Israel. (As Chomsky points out, the U.S. under Ronald Reagan vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have required all nations to observe international law.)
Chomsky sums up Obama's address thusly:
So what he said is, 'I’m going to lie like a trooper about history; I’m going to suppress the U.S. role, the actual U.S. role, for the last seven decades; I’m going to maintain the threat of force, which is, of course, illegal; and I’m going to ensure that the chemical weapons convention is not imposed on the region, because our ally, Israel, would be subjected to it.' And I think those are some of the main points of his address.
Watch the entire interview in the video below, and read the full transcript of the segment here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 5:10 PM EDT
Biden Holds Two Classified Briefings On Syria For House Republicans, Source Says
Vice President Joe Biden hosted two classified briefings in the White House Situation Room Wednesday for groups of House Republicans, an administration official confirmed to HuffPost. The meetings were not on Biden's public schedule, and according to an attendee, Syria topped the agenda.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said in a tweet this afternoon that his meeting with Biden lasted two hours, and Schock appreciated Biden's "frank discussion and personal outreach."
Just a day earlier, Schock expressed frustration with the Obama administration's shifting position on Syrian chemical weapons negotiations.
“There are so many moving parts,” Schock told Time. “The Administration’s statements continue to change over a 24-hour period. We’re going to strike, we’d like Congress’s approval, we don’t need Congress’s approval—that’s what we heard last week—to now we may not strike if Assad gives up his weapons to Russia.”
-- Christina Wilkie
09/11/2013 4:29 PM EDT
Are Americans Too Desensitized To Care About Syria?
David Nakamura posits that one of the toughest challenges Obama faces is getting Americans to care about Syria -- and not simply because of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Washington Post writer notes that the images of children writhing on hospital floors in the aftermath of the Aug. 21 chemical attack may not be informative or graphic enough to elicit the emotional response the administration has hoped for during its strike campaign.
Images of dead bodies or men gasping for air and convulsing may produce a horrified reaction, but they do not necessarily explain to a viewer what happened or why, said Scott Sigmund Gartner, a scholar at Penn State University who has studied the affect of war imagery on the public.
"The images that are the most powerful tells [sic] a story that is understandable without captions, without additional explanation," Gartner said. "The images I’ve seen in the media are terrible; they are horrific. But they do not tell a story about the role of chemical weapons -- and it’s unfair to even ask ... that of an image because with chemical weapons, most of the time there’s nothing to see."
Additionally, Nakamura spoke to an expert who acknowledged that while humans are "hard-wired" to fear poisons and gases, the Syria attack videos "lack raw emotional power compared to bloodier photos and videos that the public has seen from other war zones."
Read the full story here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
09/11/2013 3:35 PM EDT
New Details on U.S.-Russia Negotiations In Geneva
More details emerged Wednesday about Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and negotiate a plan to turn over Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
Kerry will depart late Wednesday night accompanied by a team of United States chemical weapons experts, and spend Thursday and Friday in Geneva, according to a State Department spokeswoman. He is scheduled to meet with Lavrov and with United Nations Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. There were no plans Wednesday for Kerry to meet with members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
The Geneva meetings will give the U.S. an opportunity to evaluate whether the Russian proposal is serious, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The U.S. scientists also will work with their Russian counterparts to "make this effort logistically and technically possible," Psaki said.
The safety of any weapons inspectors or removal teams while in Syria will certainly be part of the discussion, she said.
Psaki said the negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov are separate from early-stage negotiations on Syria held Wednesday in New York between representatives of the five permanent member nations on the U.N. Security Council. She acknowledged, however, that "all these pieces are linked together."
The U.N. negotiations grew tense Wednesday, when Russia rejected a proposal by France and the U.S. for a binding resolution. The resolution would strip Assad of his chemical weapons and impose "very severe consequences" if he failed to comply.
09/11/2013 2:59 PM EDT
Team Of Chemical Weapons Specialists To Travel With Kerry To Geneva
Secretary of State John Kerry will be accompanied during his two-day trip to Geneva this week by a team of United States chemical weapons experts. The team will help Kerry negotiate the details of a Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
A State Department spokeswoman said the names of the experts would be released when the list was finalized, and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's counterpart in the negotiations, also will bring a team of scientists and specialists to the meeting.
Despite a bumpy road ahead for any multinational agreements on Syria's chemical weapons, the inclusion of logistics experts and scientists in what was initially called a diplomatic mission underscores how far the U.S. and Russia have come toward an agreement in just 72 hours.
-- Christina Wilkie
09/11/2013 1:50 PM EDT
Report: All Five Permanent Members Of UN Security Council To Meet Today On Syria
JUST IN: Five permanent UN Security Council member nations meeting today to discuss next steps re Syrian chemical weapons.— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 11, 2013
09/11/2013 1:45 PM EDT
John Boehner's Syria Stance Not Playing Well Back Home
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared early on his support for President Barack Obama's plan to take military action in Syria. But according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, that position is not playing well in Boehner's Republican district back in Ohio:
One political expert said Boehner’s support might cost him votes next session for Speaker of the House, but he doubts it would oust him from Congress.
Of the 20 people the Enquirer approached about Boehner, some didn’t even know who he was, much less what was his stance on an attack on Syria.
Other opinions ranged from applauding him for at least making a decision to questions about whether he’s still a conservative. One person said he staunchly agrees with what Boehner did and that politics shouldn’t be involved.
Patricia Harmon, 49, of Middletown, suggested Boehner was a turncoat.
“I thought he didn’t like Democrats. Why is he all of a sudden backing the president?” she said.
-- Amanda Terkel
09/11/2013 12:09 PM EDT
Damascus Residents Line Up For Passports
Despite President Obama's call for Congress to delay a vote on a military strike against Syria, dozens of Syrians lined up in Damascus for passports to leave the country. Reuters reports that many residents of the Syrian capital appear wary of current negotiations at the U.N. to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
"We just decided it was time we got passports for the whole family," Raghad, a mother of three in her thirties, told Reuters. Raghad explained that while the family would not need a passport to cross the border into neighboring Lebanon, it would require documents to leave for a third country. "Now with all this news, what if we went to Lebanon and couldn't return? We need passports in case we have no choice but to travel to a third country," Raghad said. "For now, based on the latest news, we're staying until something changes."
Read the full story here.
09/11/2013 11:51 AM EDT
Israel: Syria Must Be Stripped Of Chemical Weapons
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, Reuters reports:
Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, who is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.
Read the full story here.