WASHINGTON – Both of Arizona’s senators voted Wednesday to authorize military strikes against the Syrian government for its reported use of chemical weapons against civilians and opposition forces in that country’s civil war.
Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain were two of three Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote for a resolution allowing President Barack Obama to take “limited and specified” action against Syria. The measure passed 10-7.
“I think this is one of the most important pieces of legislation this committee will consider” McCain said at the meeting.
The vote came after three hours of closed-door intelligence briefings and debate Wednesday for the committee, which added amendments making clear that any attacks must be part of a broader strategy in Syria, among other changes.
Two amendments, by McCain and Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., reaffirmed committee positions that U.S. goals should include forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and negotiating a political settlement in the country. They also called on the U.S. to lead an international effort to strengthen rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army.
“These amendments are vital to ensuring that any U.S. military operations in Syria are part of a broader strategy to change the momentum on the battlefield,” McCain said in a statement after the meeting.
He said it is key that Assad and his supporters feel the effect of any U.S. military action.
“If Bashar al-Assad remains in an advantageous position he will never leave Syria,” McCain said. “He has to know he is losing.”
The vote came one day after the committee heard an appeal from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Those men were on the other side of Capitol Hill Wednesday making the same appeal to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Obama insists he has the authority to order limited military action against Syria in response to what the White House said was use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21. But he announced over the weekend that he would ask Congress to approve any military action – even though Congress is officially on recess until next week.
Flake, who was silent through Wednesday’s public meeting, said in a statement after the vote that Obama did not need congressional permission to act, but sought the support for political reasons. But Flake said the proof was too strong not to vote for the resolution.
“After reviewing both the classified and unclassified evidence, I am convinced that the Syrian regime did launch a chemical-weapons attack, and it is in our national interest that it faces the consequences,” Flake said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., read from a prepared statement that said the U.S. needs to do something in Syria, but that he does not agree with the president’s proposed action.
“This idea that a military response is the only way to respond to what is happening in Syria is just not true,” Rubio said.
He said the U.S. needs to help the Syrian opposition get rid of Assad on their own, instead of involving our own forces.
The administration has said repeatedly that the use of force against Syria would not include U.S. troops on the ground, but would only be aimed at preventing future use of chemical weapons.
The Senate resolution also sets a 60-day limit on the president’s authority to use force against Syria, with a possible 30-day extension, and requires that the president report to Congress on the progress made by U.S. forces.
The House committee has yet to vote on the resolution, but after Wednesday’s hearing Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. said he is against the U.S. taking action in Syria.
“The administration failed to present a convincing argument that the events in Syria pose a clear threat to America,” Salmon, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
He said he does not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, but that the administration’s failure to win support for action from other nations and a weak definition of victory caused him to oppose any strikes against Syria.