Senate Armed Services Chairman Says U.S. Should Strike Syria Despite Public Opinion
Meeting with Washington, D.C.-based defense reporters on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Congress was not prepared to vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, but the president may strike even if such a measure were to fail.
“I don’t know that he will,” authorize attacks if Congress does not vote in favor of action, Levin said. “I think the prospect is real that he would, but I can’t say that he will. That option surely has got to be supported in any way we can. We should do nothing to reduce the availability of options to the president. Even if we can’t strengthen his hand, we surely should do nothing to weaken it.”
“It would not surprise me — even if there weren’t congressional authority — that he would use his Article 2 authority,” Levin added, referencing the article of the U.S. Constitution that grants the president authority to initiate hostilities without consulting Congress.
Levin, who voted against the Iraq war in 2003 when invading that country received widespread approval among the American public, said after careful study he believes taking action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad is in the best interest of the United States.
“I just don’t think we can be guided when it comes to this kind of an issue by public opinion polls,” he said. “I wasn’t guided on the war in Iraq. After careful scrutiny of the facts … you must do what is in the security interest of the United States.”
Levin also supports arming vetted Syrian rebel groups with anti-tank weapons and other heavy ordnance that would allow them to assault or destroy chemical weapon delivery systems without direct outside assistance.
A broad authorization for use of force gained little support in Congress, which is now waiting for a revised document that would strictly limit military action against Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons to massacre civilians last month. The attack added more than 1,400 deaths to a toll of more than 100,000 in nearly three years of fighting in Syria.
Levin said the new wording should allow military strikes only if political pressure fails to force Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles for destruction by a third party. Even without action by Congress, such a resolution could force a political solution to the issue, Levin said. Voting before the resolution’s wording is amenable to both sides of the aisle could exacerbate the problem, he added.
“The best time to vote is when it can win. We don’t even have the language, so it’s too early to decide,” Levin said. “The worst time to vote is when it’s going to lose because the last thing you want to do is remove the pressure for a political settlement.”
Levin said the use of chemical weapons by Syria represents a security risk to the United States and its troops overseas because the use of such weapons is a violation of international norms governing the conduct of war. Overlooking Assad’s conduct is tantamount to inviting the use of chemical weapons on U.S. troops in the future, he said.
“There is a potential threat to our troops if these weapons become acceptable,” Levin said. “If you live with these kinds of attacks without action, we are jeopardizing our troops in the field because it’s more likely that someone else will … miscalculate.”
The situation in Syria could be the catalyst for wider regional problems, such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Levin said. Allowing Assad to blatantly deploy chemical weapons in spite of international norms could convince Iran that international pressure against its nuclear aspiration is disingenuous.
“If we do not act to [have] Syria get rid of these weapons, Iran could miscalculate,” he said. “It is in our interest that Iran not miscalculate the determination of this government … that they not decide to have a nuclear weapon.”
The presence of chemical weapons in Syria — where al-Qaida-linked fighters are opposing government forces — is a threat in itself, Levin said. If captured by rebel fighters who also oppose the United States, the weapons could be turned on U.S. troops, civilians or allied nations.
“There is a threat to our people if the proliferation of chemical weapons occurs [and they] get into the hands of terrorist groups. That proliferation, I believe, is more likely to occur if we don’t act against the use of these weapons by Assad,” he added. “There are rules of war, folks. … These are verboten. These are forbidden and for a damn good reason they are forbidden.”