Some unexpected voices in Washington are calling for broader strikes against Syria than the White House’s plans for a small-scale military response this week to leader Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, while others on the right are urging restraint.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that President Obama will not try to pursue “regime change” in Syria or even try to change the dynamics of the country’s civil war, even though the U.S. supports the opposition and would like to see Assad toppled.
“The options we are considering are not about regime change,” Carney told reporters Tuesday, stressing that the U.S. will act to punish Assad for violating “an international norm” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.
Even with U.S. and British navy vessels positioned for a strike, Carney argued that “there is no military solution” in Syria, that any resolution to the bloody, three-year war would come only as a result of a political process that forces Assad from power.
Experts on the Middle East of all political stripes quickly lined up to disagree.
Michael Doran, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, accused the United States of “crab-walking into a deep commitment in Syria” and pressed the administration to rethink its reluctance to oust Assad.
“In the eyes of all Middle Eastern states, the conflict there is a battle for the soul of the entire region,” Doran wrote Tuesday for a Brookings blog post. “… The idea, therefore, that the United States can join the game today and then go back to sitting on the bench tomorrow is fanciful. Like it or not, we are significant participants in the struggle for Syria.”
Avoidance of regime change, he said, is more likely to lead to a quagmire because the American public would support a quick, broad strike but would have little taste for following up a tepid first air assault with more.
Robert Baer, an author and former CIA case officer mostly assigned in the Middle East, suggested that the first U.S.-led strike will not likely be the last.
“This is a nasty civil war, and I don’t think this administration wants to get into it, but unfortunately, we pretty well have to,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens was more blunt, calling on Obama to kill Assad, his family and his associates.
“Maybe this strikes some readers as bloody-minded,” he wrote. “But I don’t see how a president who ran for his second term boasting about how he “got” Osama bin Laden – one bullet to the head and another to the heart – has any grounds to quarrel with the concept.”
To say Obama has been reluctant to get involved in Syria would be an understatement. The president has tried to shape his foreign policy around an exit strategy from two wars in the Middle East, so he has spent months rejecting the call from national security advisers and some close Cabinet members to arm the Syrian rebels.
The war-weary American public shares that reluctance. Polls show they overwhelmingly oppose the use of military force in Syria.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said is isn’t considering deploying personnel to seize and secure chemical weapons, which the Pentagon has estimated could take 75,000 troops.
There also are serious difficulties in trying to seize control of Syria’s chemical stockpile, and any attempt to destroy the stockpile from the air could set off the weapons, creating large plumes of deadly vapors that could kill civilians downwind.
Ousting Assad without a plan to position a new leader more friendly to the West is also fraught with peril, as key lawmakers on Capitol Hill warn about the opposition’s jihadist tendencies and al Qaeda’s emergence in the war-torn nation.
While the usual defense hawks, such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been urging U.S. military intervention for months, some unexpected voices on Capitol Hill are urging caution.
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, on Tuesday said President Obama must make the case to the American people and consult with Congress before launching a strike in Syria.
The president “needs to explain what vital national interests are at stake and should put forth a detailed plan with clear objectives and an estimated cost for achieving those objectives,” he said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems to be supporting Obama’s more cautious approach. He said a U.S.-led attack on the Middle East country is “the right thing to do as long as it’s surgical and proportional.”
“What I don’t want to see is … is something that ends up causing us to be mired in the civil war,” he said.
Sean Lengell contributed to this report.