President Barack Obama's planned attack on Syria will be a "hard sell" in Congress when lawmakers vote on the move next week, POLITICO reported Wednesday.
On Tuesday, House of Representative Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said they would back the president. The two Republican leaders announced their decision after Obama held talks with Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both chambers of Congress. But POLITICO reported that many rank-and-file GOP congressmen "would not follow their leaders."
"While most top congressional leaders have vowed to back President Barack Obama in seeking authority to launch missile strikes, there’s little evidence that they can — or even want to — help him round up the rank-and file-Republicans he’ll need to win a vote in the House," POLITICO reported
"The use of these weapons has to be responded to," Boehner said. "And only the United States has the capability and capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated."
During the meeting, Obama said the action in Syria would be "a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences," accrording to the White House.
"It gives us the ability to degrade Assad's capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons. It also fits into a broader strategy that we have to make sure that we can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability not only to Syria but to the region."
Obama stressed that the strike "does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan."
Later on Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on Syria, during which Republican Senator Bob Corker asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether the administration would endorse a resolution that prohibited the use of ground forces. Kerry said the administration had no "intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground," but would prefer not to have such a prohibition in case of various contingencies, including the possibility of "a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of [jihadist group] al-Nusra or someone else."
"The bottom line is, the president has no intention and will not, and we do not want to, put American troops on the ground to fight this, or be involved in the fighting of this civil war, period," Kerry said.
"The people of Israel, of Jordan, of Turkey, each look next door, and they see that they're one stiff breeze away from the potential of being hurt, their civilians being killed, as a consequences of choices Assad might take in the absence of action. They anxiously await our assurance that our word means something. They await the assurance that if the children lined up in unbloodied burial shrouds were their own children that we would keep the world's promise. That's what they're hoping."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that should Congress withhold approval for an attack, the U.S.'s credibility would be hurt and its deterrent value for Iran would also be compromised.
The hearing was held a day after Hagel and Kerry held a conference call with 130 Democratic lawmakers. During the call, Kerry said that the U.S. was facing a "Munich moment," referring to the infamous 1938 deal signed in the German city between Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Germany's Adolf Hitler. The agreement failed to prevent the Second World War.
According to POLITICO, during the call, Kerry said Israel was the U.S.'s closest ally in the region and that it supported the U.S. strike on Syria.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that any action against Syria would have to be approved by the Security Council.
The Syrian regime has a range of options if the U.S. does bomb it. It could retaliate with rockets against U.S. allies in the region. It could unleash allies like Hezbollah against Western targets abroad. Or it could do nothing, and score propaganda points by portraying itself as a victim of U.S. aggression.
The regime's choice, analysts say, will probably depend on the magnitude of the American military action: The bigger and more sustained the strikes, the more likely the government in Damascus will feel compelled to respond.
If Washington follows through with calibrated strikes, analysts say, Assad may reach for a political card, not a military one.
"His first option is propaganda value," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Assad could try to foster the notion "that the West is again attacking a Middle Eastern state, an Arab state, without the right international legitimacy. And he can bolster that dynamic, that narrative, by showing that it had a cost for innocent civilians."
One way to achieve that would be to show the world images of civilians purportedly killed by American strikes.
"If he's able to score points from this, he will feel that he's actually won without actually engaging in a military response," Shaikh said.
Assad charted a similar course after alleged Israeli airstrikes in May that targeted advanced weapons destined for Lebanon's Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. His regime portrayed the attacks as proof of the rebels' collusion with Israel, denounced the strikes as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and dispatched an obscure militant group to threaten retaliation.
In terms of military responses, Assad could launch rockets at U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan or Israel. But that could touch off a prolonged military engagement with an outside power at a time when the regime is already in a bloody fight for its survival.
An attack against NATO-member Turkey could trigger a response from the entire military alliance, while Jordan hosts about a dozen U.S. F-16 jets, a Patriot missile battery and around 1,000 American troops.
As for Israel, the Assad regime could launch rockets at the Jewish state, or turn to Hezbollah to do so. The terrorist group is believed to have a well-stocked arsenal of missiles capable of hitting the country's major cities.
But analysts say Syria is unlikely to pursue such a course unless the U.S. strikes pose an immediate threat to Assad's grip on power. Hezbollah would have a lot to lose. The group is already facing flak at home for fighting alongside Syrian government troops against the rebels. A full-on confrontation with Israel on behalf of Syria would probably be a tough sell to its Shiite constituents at home, let alone the broader Lebanese public.
"I can't see a situation whereby they [Hezbollah] would accept an order from Assad to, say, attack Israel or attack some domestic enemies. I think that would be too damaging for their position," said Chris Phillips, a Syria specialist at Queen Mary University in London.
Israeli defense officials also say the odds of retaliation by Syria or Hezbollah are very low. Still, Israel has deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries in the Tel Aviv area and toward its northern frontier with Syria.
Between these two extremes lies a middle path for Assad, which would involve an attack such as a car bombing carried out by a sympathetic terrorist group.
"Something to indicate to the outside world that it is dangerous to mess with the Assad regime, that they have levers that can cause damage elsewhere, while also plausibly denying that they've had direct impact," Phillips said. As an example, Phillips pointed to a double car bombing earlier this year in Turkey that killed more than 50 people. Turkey blames Syria, while Syria denies any role.