Late last night, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee settled on new language for an authorization to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Unlike the language proposed by the White House, this explicitly forbids the use of ground troops, limits the action to only Syria, and authorizes force for a maximum of 90 days with the specific intent to stop Bashar al-Assad from using WMDs in the future:
Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders have reached an agreement on the language for the resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria for up to 90 days — but with no “boots on the ground.” …
As drafted, the language worked out between Menendez and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would authorize the use of force for 60 days, with provisions making it possible that the authorization would be extended for 30 days after that, according to Senate sources.
Via TPM, here’s the draft coming to members of the Foreign Relations Committee:
The bar on ground troops isn’t quite as explicit as some would like, though:
Over the last two days, Corker had been insisting on a 30-day deadline for Obama to order any military action against Syria, but Democrats objected to that requirement.
The Tennessee Republican had also sought a flat-out prohibition on the insertion of any American ground forces into Syria.
But Democrats insisted that Obama should be allowed to do so under limited circumstances, such as special-forces operations or to secure stocks of chemical weapons. Corker aides noted the bill includes a prohibition on using American ground forces for “combat operations,” although it is silent on using troops in emergency situations.
What qualifies as an “emergency”? This will likely be a sticking point for the resolution, but it’s a broader problem than just semantics. So far, advocates for a military strike seem very confident that Syria and its allies won’t respond to a blatant act of war. What happens if Syria starts firing anti-ship missiles at our fleet in the Mediterranean? What happens if Assad sends a division over the Golan Heights, or Hezbollah invades Israel from Lebanon in retaliation?
We might need to put boots on the ground in a hurry in those cases — and that’s where the folly of limited authorizations are exposed. If Syria responds by attacking the US or our allies, President Obama will have full latitude in sending ground troops under the War Powers Act, at least for 9o days. He could attack Syria, Iran, and invade western Iraq all over again if he determined that any or all of that was necessary to respond to an attack, which itself was a response to American attacks authorized by Congress in a manner that Capitol Hill thought would be “limited.” Any attack we launch that is significant enough to damage the Assad regime is very likely to provoke this outcome.
Meanwhile, the House hasn’t settled on specific language yet — they’re still out of town — but a few proposals seem to line up roughly with what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is contemplating:
A pair of House Democrats and a senior House Republican on the Intelligence Committee have released new draft resolutions dealing with President Barack Obama’s authority to attack Syria, illustrating the resistance to the White House’s initial proposal. …
Nunes proposal could be attractive to House Republicans, many of whom are solidly against attacking Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. A draft copy of his bill, provided to POLITICO, requires Obama to come to Congress within 60 days to provide information in nine areas to justify the use of force.
The bill would require an explanation of attempts to build a coalition; a “detailed plan for military action in Syria, including specific goals and military objectives;” what would qualify as degrading the chemical weapons supply; an explanation how a limited military strike would encourage regime change, prevent terrorists from taking control of power or weapons, secure the chemical weapons and deter their future use; how a strike would prevent Iran and Russia from keeping Assad in power; information about Al Qaeda’s access to weapons; an explanation of whether weapons from Libya are being used by the Syrian opposition and an estimation of the cost.
In contrast, Van Hollen and Connolly are supportive of strikes against Syria, but they think Obama’s language ““could open the door to large scale military involvement in Syria and the region.”
“We will not support that resolution,” the pair write in a letter to their colleagues.
Their resolution prohibits ground forces in Syria, limits attacks to 60 days and prohibits Obama from attacking again, unless Obama says that Assad’s regime uses chemical weapons again. The resolution also says Obama can only attack Syria with the goal of preventing use of chemical weapons, not to prevent the stockpiling of them.
In the end, the House will probably just debate whatever comes out of the Senate, since the language there is as close to the kind of limitations that have a prayer of passage in either chamber. That will also make it easier for Congress to kick the whole mess back to Obama rather than spend a lot of time owning the policy, assuming of course it passes at all — which is not going to be easy. But Congress had better be prepared to see its limiting language become moot very quickly, and be prepared for a much bigger war as a consequence of this policy.