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War With Syria? Not So Fast
As opposition builds in Congress, an international proposal to avoid bombing gains traction.
The president’s plan to bomb Syria already faces resistance from some Senate Republicans, and Senate Democrats are increasingly wary of it, with some reportedly inching closer toward publicly breaking ranks.
The march toward an American-led bombing campaign in Syria is slowing, thanks both to an international peace proposal spearheaded by Russia and to mounting anti-intervention sentiment in Congress.
On Monday night, President Obama indicated his tentative approval of a Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
The proposal calls for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to international control and allow for their eventual destruction. It also requires Syria to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—an inter-governmental organization whose members have pledged to support the international convention banning the use of chemical weapons. The plan has received support from Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem and praise from Iran, China and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In an interview with ABC News, Obama said that American plans to bomb the country would “absolutely” be put on hold if that proposal were to be carried out. But Obama also told NBC News that it should be taken “with a grain of salt,” considering Syria’s past unwillingness to share details about its weapons programs.
A version of the Russian plan could soon be making its way to the United Nations. France first proposed a resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to be handed over to international monitors. But France’s draft proposal also includes a condemnation of “the August 21 massacre committed by the regime”—phrasing that likely explains why the Russian foreign ministry deemed that draft proposal “unacceptable” later on Tuesday.
Russia has expressed doubts that the Assad government is responsible for the attack the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people; as one of the five permanent members on the Security Council with veto power, Moscow will likely cite any embedded accusations or overly aggressive language against the Assad government as reason to oppose a resolution. Any successful UN Security Council resolution would have to please all five members with veto power: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.
The surprising, if still very early, international developments that could avert a U.S.-led bombing campaign seem to have unintentionally originated with comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry at a London press conference on Monday. Kerry said that Assad could avoid an attack by agreeing to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons within a week, though a State Department spokesperson later stressed that Kerry was speaking only rhetorically. But after Russia’s foreign minister made an official proposal similar to Kerry’s remarks and the Syrian government expressed support, the White House publicly warmed to the idea.
Roadblocks in Congress
Meanwhile, Congress is increasingly showing signs that it will not pass legislation authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Obama administration has already indicated that it views Congress’ vote as non-binding, but defying Congress after requesting its authorization would be politically challenging, at the very least.
On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he would delay a procedural vote authorizing military force that had been scheduled for Wednesday. He told the Associated Press that it is less important to “see how fast we can do this” than “how well we can do this.”
But Reid’s announcement also comes in the face of growing opposition from both sides of the aisle, with vote estimates in both chambers decidedly favoring non-intervention. The president’s plan to bomb Syria already faces resistance from some Senate Republicans, and Senate Democrats are increasingly wary of it, with some reportedly inching closer toward publicly breaking ranks. Obama will be speaking at both of the Senate’s party lunches on Tuesday to win over support.
A resolution authorizing the bombing of Syria has an even more unlikely chance of passing the Republican-controlled House, where a majority of representatives have already indicated they will either be voting “no” or are “leaning no” on the bill. A coalition made up of mostly Republicans and some anti-war Democrats should provide enough votes to defeat any war bill. So far fewer than 30 representatives have said they will vote to bomb Syria.
Meanwhile, military intervention remains deeply unpopular both in the United States and abroad.
New polls show the American public is firmly opposed to bombing Syria. A CBS/New York Times poll found that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to military strikes against Syria, with only 30 percent in favor. A separate Pew Research/USA Today poll found 63 percent opposed, with only 28 percent supportive of strikes.
In France, the United States’ main ally in a potential intervention, the public is opposed by a similarly wide margin. A French poll released on Monday found that only 35 percent think a French-American intervention in Syria is justified, while 56 percent disagree. As in the United States, support for an intervention is more pronounced among backers of the ruling center-left party.
Anti-war protesters have also ramped up their activity in the last few days, with organizers holding small demonstrations in New York, Los Angeles and Washington over the weekend. And on Monday night, CODEPINK, CREDO, MoveOn and the Win Without War Coalition held a vigil in front of Congress to oppose a potential military intervention in Syria. On Tuesday night, CODEPINK will be staging a protest outside the White House.
Organizers are planning for that protest to end just before Obama’s scheduled address on Syria. The president’s speech was announced days in advance of the Russian proposal to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Amid an evolving backdrop of diplomatic maneuvering, and with Congress looking increasingly unlikely to approve an intervention, it remains to be seen what exactly the president will argue.
Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.