Senators recasting – not scrapping – Syria legislation

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
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Protesters against U.S. military action in Syria march to Capitol Hill from the White House in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The march was organized by the ANSWER Coalition. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Protests over American involvement with Syria

Key senators are recasting — not abandoning — legislation that could set the stage for war with Syria, sources familiar with the process said Tuesday, meaning Congress may still have to vote on the deeply unpopular issue.

And it could still easily lead to American military strikes.

The Russian-backed proposal to put Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control has scrambled plans to vote as early as this week on President Barack Obama’s request for congressional authority to use force.

So a bipartisan group of senators has urgently been drafting an amendment to the legislation to enforce Moscow's initiative and to reflect expectations that the U.N. Security Council will have a bigger role to play, according to sources familiar with the deliberations.

As of early Tuesday, the basic framework of the in-the-works amendment gives the Security Council a relatively brief stretch of time to pass a resolution saying that Syria must give up its chemical weapons to international forces for destruction. It then sets out a somewhat longer stretch of time for Syria to fulfill that mandate — and for the international community to verify Bashar Assad’s compliance. The time frames were in flux.

The Security Council resolution would have to establish a process for inspections to verify Syrian compliance. The inspectors would need unfettered access to every chemical weapons site and total freedom of movement around Syria. Assad would need to take immediate steps to start transferring his weapons of mass destruction to international custody. The resolution would also need to lay out clear triggers for action, and clear timetables.

If the administration cannot certify that those conditions have been met, then the Russian plan would be considered a failure and Obama would be authorized to strike. The plan faces daunting difficulties both at the Security Council, where Russia has vetoed efforts to get tougher with Syria, and on the ground, where weapons inspectors would be hunting for chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.

As of late Monday, the group of lawmakers comprised Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Republican Sens. John McCain, Saxby Chambliss, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte. It also included Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democratic leader, and fellow Democrats Bob Casey and Chris Coons.

A Levin staffer says the Michigan lawmaker, long a backer of a more hawkish response to Syria, thinks tying authorization to use military force to Assad’s failure to turn over his chemical weapons would achieve two American policy goals.

“First, it would increase the likelihood that Assad’s regime gives up its chemical weapons without the need for the use of force by increasing the pressure on Assad and on Russia to make that happen,” the aide told Yahoo News. “Second, it would deter Assad and others from using chemical weapons, thereby maintaining the global prohibition on use of chemical weapons that has protected America and our troops from these weapons, by authorizing the use of force if they refuse.”