WASHINGTON -- On the heels of a skillfully crafted, bipartisan negotiation that facilitated the passage of an Iran nuclear oversight bill out of the Senate, there was speculation that the bill’s manager, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), would orchestrate a similar compromise on another piece of gridlocked foreign policy legislation: the Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State group.
On Wednesday, Corker made it clear that this is not his plan. "Look, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to produce outcomes, you know, do things that matter, produce results," he told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
The chairman acknowledged the general points of disagreement within Congress -- Democrats see the draft authorization as overly broad while Republicans feel it places excessive restrictions on the president’s ability to wage war -- but he also cited the Obama administration’s unwillingness to take decisive action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a reason for his hesitance to support the proposed AUMF.
"I think all of you recognize that, at least the way the AUMF was sent forth, the passage of it has going to have zero effect on anything that’s happening on the ground," Corker said, referring to the fact that the draft AUMF leaves in place the 2001 law that the Obama administration currently uses as legal justification for its bombing campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
“In a public forum, the Joint Chiefs [of Staff] is saying that it’s obviously practical issue to have a train and equip program and know that you’re going to introduce people who have been trained to go against ISIS [another name for the Islamic State group] back into the arena and yet they haven’t asked for an authorization to protect these same groups against Assad’s barrel bombs,” added Corker, referring to Gen. Martin Dempsey’s March testimony.
The Pentagon's overt program to train and provide arms to members of the Syrian opposition began late last week, according to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Back in March, Dempsey alluded to conversations within the White House about the difficulty of attracting recruits to the train and equip program without the promise of protection against Assad. However, President Barack Obama has made no indication that he wants Congress to provide him war authority against the Syrian regime.
According to Corker, this needs to be part of the larger AUMF debate. “Republicans are reticent to look at what is a limiting AUMF. They’re concerned about embracing that, because then it would appear that you are embracing a non-strategy in Syria,” he said.
For Obama, opening an additional war front against a sovereign government is not a desirable option. While the Obama administration has repeatedly said that Assad has lost his legitimacy as the leader of Syria, it has also urged for a political agreement to end his rule rather than a military ouster.
UN-backed peace talks between Assad and the opposition restarted last week, but observers of the four-year-long civil war see little indication that the government is willing to relinquish power.
Congress is not the only detractor of Obama’s reluctance to forcefully remove Assad. Last month French Prime Minister Manuel Valls blasted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for comments suggesting that Washington would negotiate with Assad for an end to the conflict.
"There will not be a political solution, there will not be a solution for Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad stays, and John Kerry knows it," Valls said.
There is speculation that poor attendance by Gulf allies to a summit at Camp David this week was due, in part, to leaders feeling miffed by Washington’s limited action in Syria.
In Turkey, the U.S. train and equip program was welcomed as a positive step, but not enough. Last week, Saudi Arabia and Turkey confirmed a joint effort to launch a military campaign against the Assad regime -- with or without the U.S.’s blessing.
In 2013, Obama came close to requesting congressional authorization to strike Assad in retaliation for using chemical weapons in Syria. At the time, it appeared unlikely that his request would pass both the House and the Senate, although Corker supported the authorization in a committee vote.
Ultimately, Obama backed away from his plan for military action, instead deferring to a Russian-crafted proposal to transfer Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal out of Syria.
Since then, there have been multiple reports alleging that Assad has continued to maintain an arsenal of chemical weapons. An estimated 220,000 people have died as a result of the war.
“The humanitarian crisis that has come out of this is beyond belief,” said Corker of the ongoing war. “I have been to the refugee camps. I cannot go again. I cannot go again because I’ve been there and looked these people in the eye, whose sons, nephews, and cousins, and uncles, and brothers have been part of the opposition and we told them what we were going to do and did not deliver.”