Even with a total death toll of over 93,000 in Syria, it looks like what could be the turning point in U.S. intervention in Syria will come down to the deaths of just 150. On Thursday, the Obama administration announced that, with "high confidence," U.S. intelligence officials believe the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Those chemical attacks, they estimate, have killed 100 or 150 in the years-long conflict. A statement from US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes notes that chemical weapons are Obama's stated "red line" for Syria, adding, "The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has." But initial reactions to the report, which seems to be the culmination of a slow build of reports on chemical weapons in the conflict, show that many lawmakers are basically sticking to their long-held positions on intervention in the Syiran conflict.
Notably, President Obama's response to the chemical weapons news has not, publicly, been an all-out call to intervention (UPDATE: but, according to multiple media reports, the administration is planning to arm some rebel groups). While the language from the White House statement out Thursday evening is strong, it falls short of a decision to provide lethal aid to Syrian rebels. That's understandable, given that the strong "red line" statement he laid out back in August was quite possibly an unplanned remark.This puts pretty much any administration response other than intervention up against a practiced call by interventionists to arm the Syrian rebels.
As we noted before, there was at least one big position switch among Congressmen immediately available: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Ed Royce, is now for arming the rebels, citing the red line. But many of the other instastatements are from committed hawks.
The most visible hawk performance after the news broke is probably that of John McCain, who previously visited Syria after sneaking across the border to meet with rebels. On the Senate floor, McCain even appeared to jump the gun by announcing that "we will be assisting the Syrian rebels in Syria by providing them with weapons and other assistance." It looks like McCain jumped the gun on something the White House hasn't officially announced (see: the Wall Street Journal). Rhodes's statement merely said we'd provide ""military support" to moderate rebels, which doesn't necessarily include "lethal aid," i.e. weapons. Later, McCain went on CNN to explain further:
"I had been told that, as i mentioned on the floor, that military assistance, but they need a lot more than a military assistance, we need to establish the no fly zone...the President of the United States needs to go to the American people and tell them why we are going to take action now I am advocating...No we don't want boots on ground, and yes we should be able to establish a no fly zone...Look what the consequences of doing nothing are. They are catastrophic in a regional conflict."
He continued to advocate specifically for sending "anti tank" and "anti air" weapons to Syrian rebels. McCain and Senator Lindsay Graham released a joint statement after the news broke laying out their support for a "no-fly zone."
Senator Saxby Chambliss also went on CNN this evening to support arming the rebels:
"The United States doesn't need to be the worlds policeman but the United States does need to step in when tyrants like this really in a very militant way kill innocent people on a regular and wholesale basis," he said, adding that he would support a "no-fly zone," too.
Other legislators echoed this claim:
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee: "Official confirmation of Assad’s use of chemical weapons heightens the urgency for the U.S. to provide the kind of decisive support, including arms and training, to vetted Syrian opposition groups as soon as possible."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon gave a statement on the House floor chastising Obama for not jumping to action at the first indication that maybe the red line had been crossed: "The President has stated that a red line has been crossed. But I would observe that red lines are meaningless unless they are backed by action," he said, adding, "I am... deeply concerned about our ability to honor and uphold red-lines. Our military readiness and our ability to respond is degraded today."
Majority Leader Eric Cantor picked up on the call for Obama to "explain" himself. While the Republican's statement doesn't specifically advocate for arming the rebels, it argues for increased American intervention:
"I have heard loudly and clearly from our closest partners in the region who are desperate for American leadership...My colleagues and I stand ready to work with the President. I call on President Obama to explain to the Congress and the American people his plan to bring this conflict to an end in a manner that protects the interests of the United States and our allies."
Another early responder from Congress, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, held firm to his reservations on arming Syrian rebels.Arguing that it wouldn't be as easy to keep the weapons from falling into undesirable hands as some are saying, Murphy urged the White House to increase "our humanitarian assistance to refugee populations and opposition groups" instead.
Was on the Senate floor to hear Obama spokesman John McCain announce military aid for Syrian rebels. #strangeworld— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 13, 2013
While it's way too early to tell how the divisions on Syrian intervention will shake out, Murphy and other non-interventionists are so far harder to find. Even Canada, apparently, is "consulting with our allies on a response" to the U.S. intelligence report.