On Monday the U.S. Congress agreed to move ahead with a shipment of weapons to Syrian rebels. The deal comes after weeks of gridlock on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debated direct intervention in Syria.Perspectives were split, but not across the usual party lines — in other words, it wasn’t a classic case of Republicans against Democrats. Instead, there was a new policy divide, with individual voices from both sides calling for a more muscular U.S. role in the conflict.
In Washington terms, new “hawks” and “doves” have emerged on Syria, says Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and President Obama’s special advisor for transition in Syria. At one end of the spectrum, Hof identifies Republican Senator John McCain as a fierce advocate of arming the rebels; McCain visited Free Syrian Army officials in northern Syria last month in a show of support.
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, is also a very strong proponent of military options on Syria, says Hof. ”He’s focusing on the effect regime tactics are having on Syria’s neighbors. McCain has advocated a no-fly zone and things like that, where Levin is more in favor of considering targeted strikes that really diminish the ability of the regime to terrorize large populations with artillery and aircraft missiles,” he says.
On the other side of the new divide, Hof describes Republican Senator Rand Paul as staking out a position as “skeptic-in-chief” on Capitol Hill.
“He made a statement that was a very accurate reflection of this idea that both sides are morally equivalent, that they’re both bad, with no mention of General Salim Idris, of the Supreme Military Council, of carefully vetted military units,” Hof says.
That reflects the general school of thinking among lawmakers who want to avoid intervention in Syria. The House and Senate intelligence committees delayed an arms shipment to opposition forces earlier this month.
“What really struck me, and it was on both sides of the aisle, was the number of congressmen who were saying things like, ‘Well, there’s nobody for us to support in Syria’,” says Hof about the past week of debate.
“Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and even some Tea Party advocates take the view that this is a problem the U.S. really can’t do anything about … we don’t really have any friends there, there’s no one in Syria we can rely on.”
In June, President Obama said the U.S. would arm the Syrian rebels following what appeared to be a crossing of his “red line” – the use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, documented by physiological evidence. As a result, the White House announced it would send ammunition and light weapons to vetted rebel brigades under the command of General Idris.
But Obama had a difficult time convincing lawmakers to agree.
“He’s having a lot of difficulty on Capitol Hill having people follow his lead on this … he’s had to dispatch Vice President [Joe] Biden a couple of times to do consolations and explain to people why it’s important to support General Idris,” said Hof.
The resistance in Congress comes from what Hof calls “Iraq syndrome” — a residual pessimism from the Iraq war, a feeling that if the U.S. tries to do anything in the Middle East it will fail.
“Every time the U.S. sticks its toe into the Middle East, it gets bloodied,” Hof says. “Look at the disaster we had in Iraq; look at how difficult a time we’ve had in Afghanistan.” The feeling “crosses the aisle.
“On both sides … Democrats and Republicans, there is a lot of regard for the cost, for having to ask the U.S. military [to make another sacrifice].”
That has meant that in the debate between the new “hawks” and “doves,” the momentum has failed to produce any pointed action on Syria.
“We don’t understand it, we don’t have the required talent,” he says. “And we have other priorities, we’ve got health care and the domestic economy.” To U.S. politicians, that makes intervention in Syria just seem like a bad idea.