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Syria airstrikes: US Congress divided in support of Donald Trump's actions

President Donald Trump's decision to strike the Syrian regime in retaliation for a chemical attack comes four years after his predecessor Barack Obama faced a similar challenge from Damascus — and chose to back down.

There was no doubt among the international community on 21 August, 2013: Obama's "red line" had just been crossed in Syria with a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that was almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Two years earlier, Obama had vowed that the use of such weapons would "change my calculus" to justify military intervention in Syria.

Britain and France agreed, embracing the president's rhetoric. So when the massacre took place in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of the Syrian capital where US intelligence said some 1,400 were killed by a sarin gas attack, all eyes turned toward Washington. Two days later, Obama said he was ready to strike.

But to surprise in the United States and around the world, he said he would put any decision over military action in Syria to a vote in Congress, essentially ruling out any immediate attack. Then his ally, then British prime minister David Cameron — who had also submitted a decision over military action to his country's lawmakers — backed out after parliament voted against taking part.

This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center on Tuesday, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center on Tuesday, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

In the end, Obama's White House would never directly intervene militarily against the Assad regime, anxious to maintain the region's crumbling geopolitical and military balance.

Washington instead agreed to a last-minute deal with Damascus brokered by Moscow to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and ship it to Russia starting in October 2013.

Under the aegis of the United Nations Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year — the operation theoretically ended the Syrian government's ability to use chemical weapons against its own citizens or anyone else.

Obama's controversial decision precipitated an avalanche of criticism in the United States and abroad for his paralysis over Syria.

On Tuesday, following a new suspected chemical weapons attack that killed least 86 Syrian civilians — including 27 children — that Washington attributed to Assad's regime, Trump said his predecessor bore some responsibility.

"These heinous acts are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution," he said in a statement. Obama had issued a "blank threat," Trump followed up on Wednesday, which "set us back a long ways." This week's attack, he said, "crosses many, many lines." After Tuesday's suspected attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, Trump was standing in Obama's shoes from almost four years ago — and he decided to step in a different direction.

On Thursday, Trump ordered a massive military strike against Syria in retaliation for the attack that Washington said involved a sarin-like nerve agent. Fifty-nine precision-guided missiles hit Shayrat Airfield in Syria, where the United States believes Tuesday's deadly attack was launched, targeting aircraft and runways at the base.

Support from US lawmakers

Senior US lawmakers from both parties expressed support Thursday for Trump's ordered military strike on a Syrian air base, but some rank-and-file members warned against further action without congressional authorisation.

Trump told the American people he ordered air strikes on Syrian forces in retaliation for a "barbaric" deadly chemical attack on civilians that he blamed on the country's strongman Assad.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a statement said: "Unlike the previous administration, Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people."

Marco Rubio called the strike an "important decisive step...It is not a message...It is a degrading of the capability of the Syrian regime to carry out further chemical attacks against innocent civilians." He also tweeted:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said, "Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do." He added: "It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it. I salute the professionalism and skill of our Armed Forces who took action today." However, not all the lawmakers were happy with Trump's actions. Ted Lieu from California said that there was no debate in the Congress and no explanation was given to the American people.

"Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country's top Democrat and a frequent critic of the nascent Trump administration, said in a statement:

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan called the action "appropriate and just," adding that the strikes "make clear that the Assad regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people."

Several lawmakers, including Ryan and Schumer stressed the need for Trump to consult with Congress on forging the appropriate US military strategy against Syria.

Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the targeted bombings "send a clear signal" of US resolve.

"However, and I cannot emphasise this enough, any longer-term or larger military operation in Syria by the Trump administration will need to be done in consultation with the Congress," he said.

Democratic congressman Adam Schiff is among several lawmakers who have long sought a new, more narrowly defined congressional authorisation for US military action in the aftermath of the attacks on 11 September, 2001 and the fight against terrorism.

"I will be re-introducing an authorisation for use of military force against Islamic State and al-Qaeda when Congress returns to session" after its two-week recess which begins Friday, Schiff said.

Democrat Barbara Lee, part of an anti-war coalition along with some isolationist Republicans who opposed president Barack Obama when he sought approval for intervention in Syria in 2013, was more blunt.

"This is an act of war," she wrote on Twitter.

"Congress needs to come back into session and hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility."

Senate Republican Rand Paul added that "while we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked."

Trump "needs congressional authorisation for military action as required by the Constitution," he said, adding that intervention in Syria would do "nothing to make us safer."

An important point to note here is the vote taken in 2002 to authorise force in Iraq, a whopping majority of 77 members had voted 'yes', only 23 had voted 'nay'. According to New York Times, the Iraq vote by and large bipartisan, however the vote "highlighted a sharp split in the Democratic party over how and when to use force," and this is true in case of the 2017 Syria airstrikes, where a similar split along similar lines can be seen.

With inputs from AFP

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 11:37 AM

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