The Syria Resolution Captures the Senate’s Confusion

by Mario Loyola

Yesterday the Senate Foreign Relations committee adopted a draft resolution authorizing force on Syria, based loosely on the version the White House sent up a week ago. The vote was 10–7, with all Republicans voting against except Senators Corker, McCain, and Flake, and all but three Democrats voting in favor. Majority Leader Harry Reid can now bring the resolution up for a vote as soon as he likes. 

The text is remarkable for how clearly it captures the Senate’s confusion over what the purpose of military strikes should be. The operative clause authorizes the use of force “only to: (1) respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria; (2) deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons; and (3) degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future.”

However, before exercising that authority, the president must deliver to Congress a series of assurances (“determinations”) which include the following: “(6) the use of military force is consistent with and furthers the goals of the United States strategy toward Syria, including achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.”

There is a contradiction here: Military force will not further the goal of a political settlement if it is limited “only” to Syria’s chemical weapons. Element (3) of the operative clause (“degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future”) could be interpreted quite expansively, as one of my Corner fellows pointed out to me recently, and indeed bringing down the presidential palace in Damascus and putting a few cruise missiles through Assad’s bedroom window would certainly “degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future.” But this is a political document, not a contract; most of the Foreign Relations Committee thinks they voted for a very narrow authorization tailored to chemical weapons, and that’s what most Americans are likely to think also. The resolution must leave no doubt that strikes are authorized against targets such as airfields, which ideally should be our principal targets in a first round of strikes. Otherwise the resolution could lead to a damaging controversy in the midst of military operations. 

As I argued in my piece on the homepage Monday, any military strikes should principally further the goals of the United States strategy towards Syria: ”A negotiated settlement will be far more likely if a strengthened Syrian opposition can hammer the Assad regime against the anvil of U.S. power.” I argued that if the original draft could not be tailored to encompass the goals of reversing the momentum on the ground and pushing Assad to a negotiated settlement, strikes would be pointless as a matter of policy, and should be opposed. The revised Senate draft is a step in the right direction, but it leaves unresolved the essential policy debate over what the ultimate purpose of strikes should be. The resolution should be clarified on the floor of the Senate, and the House should move further. 

One more point: The Senate draft authorizes force against military targets “in Syria.” That would exclude boarding operations against Syrian vessels and other vessels approaching Syrian ports, which would be foolish. Once force is authorized, Syria will be a combat zone for purposes of the U.S. military. A naval blockade of Syrian ports will be both appropriate and strategically necessary to prevent Assad’s restocking his arsenal. The rebels cannot succeed as long as Assad’s lifelines remain untouched. Hence, the resolution should not be limited to targets “in Syria,” but must leave room for naval operations, too.