War Drums: Obama Hints at a Much Larger Attack in Syria to Order to Win Over Republicans
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Chuck Hagel listens as John Kerry speaks to the Senate foreign relations committee. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
But Kerry was forced to backtrack after appearing to acknowledge that US ground troops could become involved under certain scenarios.
"In the event that Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies, all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction [falling into their hands]," Kerry said, "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to be available to the president."
Five times in subsequent exchanges, the secretary insisted he had not meant to imply that "boots on the ground" was something actively planned by the administration.
He also faced hostile questioning from McCain, who asked why the administration was not going further in helping Syrian rebels overthrow Assad.
The committee chairman, Bob Menendez, said he and other senior Democrats had not quite finished redrafting the proposed White House authorisation for military force, but hoped to do so in time for the committee to begin "marking it up", or voting on specific amendments, following a further classified briefing on Wednesday morning. Full votes before the Senate and House are expected early next week.
In his televised remarks earlier, Obama repeated the US's conclusion that Syria was responsible for chemical attacks on its own citizens. "We have high confidence that Syria used, in an indiscriminate fashion, chemical weapons that killed thousands of people," he said. "That poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region and, as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable."
With the chances of successful votes in Congress next week looking a little stronger, Obama will now head to Europe in the hope of persuading more world leaders to back his strategy. He arrives in Sweden on Wednesday for a short visit before attending the G20 international summit in St Petersburg, where he will face a frosty reception from his Russian hosts.
President François Hollande of France called on Europe's leaders to unite over Syria, but hopes in Washington that Britain might hold a fresh parliamentary vote over joining military action were dashed on Monday, when prime minister David Cameron ruled out such a move.
The White House first announced that it would provide limited military support to Syrian rebel groups in June, but it has been criticised for dragging its heels over fears that arms might fall into the wrong hands.
The alleged chemical attacks by Assad forces now seem to have strengthened the hands of those in Washington who favour more direct assistance. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that CIA-trained rebels were now operating inside Syria.