What on the surface appears to be one debate ongoing in Washington over how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is in fact, at least four, each with their own complexities and nuance. Here is a brief description of the debates within the larger conversation about what to do about the crisis in Syria:
1. Should the U.S. engage militarily in Syria?
Most relevant to the 535 members of Congress over the next two weeks is the question over whether the United States should be taking action against Syria at all. According to ThinkProgress’ latest whip count, many of the legislators are skeptical about the White House’s request for authorization to conduct limited strikes. Memories of Iraq hang like storm clouds over the entire matter, instilling a sense of caution into lawmakers that perhaps wasn’t present in 2002. Of 115 lawmakers who voted in favor of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq and are still serving, 34 now appear to be leaning against striking Syria, according to the Huffington Post.
2. What should the U.S.’s goal be in launching a limited military strike?
Making matters even more difficult for the White House is the confusion surrounding the very question of why the U.S. should even be considering a potential strike. Commentators on either side of the debate have given a litany of reasons and possible goals for military action, some of which clash with others. The Obama administration has from the start attempted to frame the issue as one of enforcing the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. That thread can be seen from Obama’s original “red-line” warning to Assad last year to Secretary of State John Kerry’s forceful presentation of the evidence against Assad. As an argument it tends to lose its moral force, however, when officials make comparisons to 1938 Munich and other references to World War II’s atrocities when making the case.
Muddying the waters even further are vague warnings about the “message” that launching or not launching a strike would send to other actors in the world, particularly Iran and North Korea. “If we do not pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get? What message will Iran receive? Hezbollah? Our allies? We have to live up to our commitments,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member on the HFAC, said at yesterday’s hearing. “Credibility” has also become a favorite word of cable news pundits and legislators alike in the last weeks, with many focusing on what backing away from previous statements of willingness to use force would mean for American power.
3. Does the U.S. have the military capability to accomplish Obama’s goal?
This question, which focuses on what the U.S. military would be able to do in the event Congress passes an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, would seem obvious but has actually had a fair amount of discussion. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday passed a limited authorization, much reduced in scope from the White House’s original request, that would give the president a maximum of 90 days to carry out strikes against Syria. An amendment that would have limited the campaign to only assets outside of Syrian airspace and territory was voted down, but it remains likely that cruise missiles fired from naval ships off the coast would form the backbone of the mission.
Following the surprise loss of the United Kingdom as a potential partner in launching strikes, the administration has been trying to make clear that any action in Syria could be taken using only U.S. assets. Secretary of State John Kerry also told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that several countries had offered to help foot the bill of a U.S. mission in Syria. But officials have made clear that the strikes wouldn’t target chemicals weapons facilities for fear of dispersal, leading many to question just why we would attack in the first place.
Several Republicans also argue that due to the ongoing effects sequestration and what they see as Obama’s dangerous cuts to the military budget any strike in Syria will be more than the U.S. can handle. “By continuing to raid the already underfunded base defense budget, Administration Obama further undermines future military readiness and capabilities,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement last week. But military analysts disagree, saying that most of the money required to launch an attack on Syria has already been spent.
4. What about Syria more broadly?
The distinctions in the administration’s two-track policy — one specifically about responding to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the other about a Syria without Assad as leader — seems to be lost on many of the players in this debate, who are wondering why force is even being considered if not to change the status of the civil war. Just last night, Rep. Adam Klinzinger (R-IL) suggested that strikes be used to target not only Assad’s chemical weapons, but Assad himself. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in particular has been a forceful advocate for taking this chance to enhance support for the Syrian rebels and possibly taking stronger military action, threatening to not support the Senate version of the Syria AUMF should he not get his way.
Counter those visions, CAP experts Larry Korb and Max Hoffman warned on Thursday that such mission creep should be rejected. A new report from the New York Times also out on Thursday is also drawing closer scrutiny towards the at times brutal actions the Syrian rebels have taken in their fight against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, adding credence to Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s warnings over what comes next after Assad.
With the confusion over which question is trying to be answered at any given moment, the usual party divides have broken down, leaving the chance of any of them being answered uncertain. Recent reports that House GOP leadership is seeking a way to avoid having a vote altogether to prevent another instance of the caucus’s foot-soldiers revolting. In the end, it may be the case that once the votes are tallied, the United States will remain just as unsure as ever about what to do about the three-year long civil war that has seen more than 100,000 people killed.