In Hearing, House Panel Seems Split on Syria Strike

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WASHINGTON -- Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared divided on Wednesday over a possible military strike on Syria, as members of President Obama's national security team took the case for intervention before the panel.

Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who leads the committee, said he was skeptical that the United States would be able to avoid an escalation in fighting, and dismissed the administration's planning as insufficient.

"The president promises a military operation in Syria of limited scope and duration," Mr. Royce said. "But the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next. That'd be particularly true as President Obama isn't aiming to change the situation on the ground."

"Are different scenarios accounted for?" he added. "If our credibility is on the line now, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates? Americans are skeptical of getting near a conflict that, as one witness has said, is fueled by 'historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues.'"

Representative Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat, followed Mr. Royce with a contrary view. Mr. Engel called on Congress to authorize a limited strike, which he said was needed to restore deterrence against the use of weapons of mass destruction.

"If we don't pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get?" Mr. Engel said. "Iran? Hezbollah?"

Mr. Royce said that he was also troubled by the lack of international support, a point Secretary of State John Kerry sought to rebut on Tuesday when he said that France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were backing a military strike.

Mr. Kerry appeared first before the House committee on Wednesday, and was joined by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In pressing for Congressional support, Mr. Kerry made a new argument: extremist groups in Syria would become stronger if the United States did not carry out a military strike.

Mr. Kerry said that the United States had worked hard in recent months to persuade Arab nations and benefactors not to finance extremist rebels who are battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and to strengthen moderate elements of the Syrian opposition instead.

But if the United States does not strike, Mr. Kerry said, it is likely that some Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition will provide, out of frustration, arms and financing to the best rebel fighters, regardless of whether they are extremists.

"We will have created more extremism and a greater problem down the road," Mr. Kerry said.

The House hearing came one day after Mr. Obama won the support of Republican and Democratic leaders in the House for an attack on Syria, giving him a foundation to win broader approval for military action from a Congress that still harbors deep reservations.

House members have been more skeptical than their Senate counterparts, before whom the three administration officials appeared on Tuesday, though Speaker John A. Boehner, who with other Congressional leaders met Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, said afterward that he would "support the president's call to action." That endorsement was quickly echoed by the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

In an exchange in Wednesday's hearing with Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, Mr. Kerry insisted that much of the Syrian opposition was moderate.

"There is a real moderate opposition that exists," he said.

Mr. Kerry said that there were 70,000 to 100,000 "oppositionists." Of these, he said, some 15 percent to 20 percent were "bad guys" or extremists.

Mr. Kerry said that the United States had persuaded Qatar and Saudi Arabia to funnel their assistance to the moderate leadership "in a disciplined way," discipline that the secretary of state said might break down if the United States did not take military action.

Responding to this point, Mr. McCaul said that he had been told in briefings that half of the opposition fighters were extremists.

Mr. Hagel said that he basically backed Mr. Kerry's analysis of the makeup of the Syrian opposition.

"We are seeing some movement in the right direction," Mr. Hagel said, asserting that moderate elements of the Syrian opposition were being strengthened.

General Dempsey, under sharp questioning from Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, said the American military had drawn up plans and had postured forces for the possibility of retaliation from Syrian forces after an American strike.

Mr. Poe pressed further, asking whether the military was also planning for the risk of escalation. General Dempsey was concise, answering, "Yes."

On Tuesday evening, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on the wording of a resolution that would give Mr. Obama the authority to carry out a strike against Syria, for a period of 60 days, with one 30-day extension. A committee vote on the measure could come as early as Wednesday.

Uncertainties abound, particularly in the House, where the imprimatur of the Republican leadership does not guarantee approval by rebellious rank and file, and where vocal factions in both parties are opposed to anything that could entangle the nation in another messy conflict in the Middle East.

Still, the expressions of support from top Republicans who rarely agree with Mr. Obama on anything suggest the White House may be on firmer footing than seemed the case on Saturday, when the president abruptly halted his plans for action in the face of growing protests from Congress.

The Senate resolution -- released on Tuesday night by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and the committee's chairman, Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey -- would limit the president's options and prohibit the use of ground forces. Any strike, it says, should be "tailored" to only deter Syria from using chemical weapons again and to cripple its capacity to do so.

The resolution would prohibit "boots on the ground" and require "the Obama administration to submit their broader plan for Syria," Mr. Corker said in a statement.

Mr. Menendez added, "We have an obligation to act."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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