Tuesday's hearing on Syria at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made for good theater. Secretary of State John Kerry was quite effective. The senators’ questions were polite, but also pointed. If I had to guess how the committee will vote on a resolution authorizing military action crafted by chairman Bob Menendez and ranking Republican Bob Corker, I’d say it will win a large majority of the 18 senators. But as I listened to the hearing, what I found most interesting was not the back-and-forth between the senators and the administration officials, but the hints that emerged of what the administration’s strategy in Syria really is.
I know it’s foolish to read anything genuine into what administration officials say in hearings, and in this case, too, you could find contradictions and inconsistencies in what Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said in response to the senators’ questions. But after watching four hours of testimony, I felt that a remarkably coherent strategy had surfaced—one that is similar to, but also a little different from, what the president or the press had previously described.
Here’s what came out in the questioning:
—The administration is not just contemplating a single punitive strike against Syria’s Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons; it is planning a repeatable military campaign that would strike again if he were to use these weapons again.
—The military campaign would also have the “collateral” or “downstream” result of weakening Assad militarily and politically. It would cause defections and significantly weaken the Assad government.
—The goal of the military campaign, combined with aid to the opposition, would not be to defeat Assad. Instead, the war would be ended by an international negotiation in which Russians would play a very important role. Such a deal would eliminate any role in Syria’s future for jihadist elements, but it might include a role for allies of Assad, if not for Assad himself.
Here are some of the places where these ideas came out. First, what is the kind of military strike that the administration is planning? News reports had characterized it as a two-day affair that would punish Assad for using chemical weapons. Obama characterized it as “narrow” and “limited.” Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey described it as not merely punishing Assad, but preventing him from using chemical weapons. The president, Kerry said, “is asking for the Congress to take steps that will specifically deter and degrade Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons.”
But Wyoming Senator John Barrasso asked, “What happens if gases are used again? I'm wondering, if we do a limited strike, as proposed, and still Assad goes back and uses chemical weapons on his people—and that engenders an entire new set of hearings? How does this—how does this end? Where we are we a month from now?”
Kerry replied, “It would be really—it would not be sensible to pass this resolution with a view to degrading and degrading his capacity and preventing him from doing it—if he were foolish enough to do it again, the general does have follow-on possibilities. And since the objective would remain the same, it'd be important for Assad himself to know that you have not limited this to one specific moment with respect to chemical weapons. You can still have a limited authorization, but with respect to chemical weapons, it'd be a huge mistake to deprive General Dempsey and company of their options to enforce what we're trying to achieve.” In other words, the administration wants at least a longer mandate (the Senate compromise would give them 60 days) to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons, not simply an authorization for a one-time strike.
Second, would the aim of the American attack be limited to knocking out Assad’s chemical weapons’ capability? The administration officials were repeatedly asked what the relationship would be between the military strike and the administration’s announced objective of removing Assad from office. Kerry initially cited the administration’s two-track strategy of coupling military action against Assad's chemical weapons’ capability with “helping the opposition by ... upgrading the efforts for the opposition to be able to fight the fight.”
But Kerry and Dempsey also suggested that the attempt to “degrade and deter” Assad would have what Kerry called “collateral” and “downstream impact“ on Assad’s regime itself. “The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity,” Kerry said in answer to a question from ranking Republican Bob Corker. Kerry agreed with Senator John McCain that the American attack would also “change the momentum on the ground.”
Kerry also believed the American attack would have political repercussions. When Idaho Senator Jim Risch asked whether Assad could actually emerge stronger for having “stood up to the greatest power on the face of the earth,” Kerry responded, “There is no question that whatever choices are made by the president, that [Assad] and his military effort will not be better off, number one. And the opposition will know that and the people in Syria will know that. Already today, just with the threat that action may be taken, defections have gone up and people in Syria are reconsidering whether Assad is a long-term bet.” These statements could be taken, of course, as attempts to buy support from Republican hawks, but they jibe with the officials’ rejection of a purely punitive aim for the military strike.
Third, what is the American objective in Syria? The Republican hawks on the committee seemed to envision a clear victory by the Free Syrian Army over Assad, but Kerry repeatedly said that the administration’s goal was a “negotiated settlement” that was based on the Geneva agreement of June 2012 that included the U.S. and Russia. “[T]he president is convinced, as I think everybody is, that there is no military solution, that ultimately, you want to get to Geneva, you want a negotiated settlement, and under the terms of Geneva One, there is an agreement which the Russians have signed onto, which calls for a transition government to be created with the mutual consent of the current regime and the opposition,” Kerry told Senator Jeanne Shaheen. “And that transition government will establish the rules of the road for the Syrian people to choose their new government.”
Several senators urged Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey to skewer the Russians for their threatened veto on the Security Council, but Kerry kept insisting that the Russians were essential to a future agreement on Syria. “Russia does not have an ideological commitment here. This is a geopolitical transactional commitment,” Kerry told Risch. “And our indications are, in many regards, that that's the way they view it, there may be more weapons to sell as a result of weapons sold, but it's not going to elicit some kind of major confrontation. Now, let me go further: They have condemned the use of chemical weapons, the Russians have. The Iranians have. And as the proof of the use becomes even more clear in the course of this debate, I think it is going to be very difficult for Iran or Russia to decide against all that evidence that there is something worth defending here.”
He was even more emphatic in response to a question from Senator Barbara Boxer. “Could I just say—I want to add, though, our Russian—you know, the Russians—I think it's important for us not to get into an unnecessary sort of struggle over some of his with the Russian for—there are a lot of reasons,” Kerry said. “The Russians are working with us and cooperating on this effort to try to make a negotiated process work. And I think they're serious about trying to find a way forward with that, number one. Number two, on major issues, like START, North Korea, Iran, the Russians are cooperating. So I think, you know, we have to sort of deal with this thoughtfully, and let's hope the summit might produce some change of heart as the president makes the evidence available to President Putin.”
There was one area where Kerry seemed to tailor his words to his audience. Asked about the Syrian opposition and about fears that by getting rid of Assad, the administration would bring Islamists to power, Kerry portrayed the moderate elements in the opposition as being entirely in command. Asked by Senator Ron Johnson about al Qaeda’s role in the opposition, Kerry replied, “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria. And that's very critical.”
Kerry’s view of the opposition is probably closer to the more pessimistic view of which Dempsey expressed in a letter last month to Rep. Eliot Engel—one of Syria and the opposition riven by “historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues.” And he hinted as much when he described to Shaheen the alternative to a negotiated settlement. “The alternative is that you stand back and do nothing and Syria in fact implodes, becomes an enclave state, there are huge ungoverned spaces, al-Nusra, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, others become more of a threat to our friends in the region, and the region becomes much more of a sectarian conflagration.” The administration’s strategy assumes that in the absence of a negotiated settlement, the war would result finally in a partitioned Syria in which jihadists would enjoy a haven. And in pressing for authorization of a military strike against Syria for using chemical weapons, the administration is not merely aiming to punish Assad, but to bring Syria closer to a negotiated settlement.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Assad used nuclear weapons on his people. He used chemical weapons.