Pa. members in Congress divided on strike on Syria

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Members of the state's congressional delegation split on the wisdom of U.S. military attacks on Syria, with two Republicans questioning whether President Obama has the legal authority to order strikes.

The Obama administration briefed congressional leaders Thursday night on intelligence tying President Bashar Assad to an apparent chemical weapons strike on two Damascus suburbs Aug. 21. The strike wounded thousands and killed at least 355, according to the aid organization Doctors Without Borders.

“Taking no action in the face of this crime against humanity means not only will the Syrian regime be emboldened to conduct more chemical attacks against their own people, but ... the Iranian regime and Hezbollah (both of which have close ties to Assad) will be emboldened to use these chemical weapons in other places,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton.

The War Powers Resolution limits the president's ability to attack a country without a declaration of war by Congress, said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. Since Syria poses no imminent threat to the United States, and the United Nations Security Council has not sanctioned an attack, “I don't think the president has the legal authority” to start one on his own, Murphy said.

“He's able to do defensive things without congressional approval, but I'm seriously concerned about what's going to happen here,” Murphy said.

Obama said in recent interviews that he has not made up his mind to attack, but that any strike would be limited and would not involve deploying troops into the 2½-year-old Syrian civil war — a war whose fractious rebellion includes al-Qaida affiliates in addition to elements more friendly to the West. U.S. warships and submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles are on standby in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Murphy is among 140 in Congress who signed a Virginia congressman's letter urging Obama to seek congressional approval for military action, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did on Thursday.

“I'm ready to have an emergency session in Congress for us to come together,” Murphy said.

Obama has not publicly detailed the case for attacking Syria, beyond accusing Assad of violating longstanding international norms against chemical warfare, said Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley.

Neither Rothfus nor Murphy expressed blanket opposition to attacking Syria, but both said Congress needs more information.

“We don't know what the military objective is going to be. We should not just have a fireworks show over there,” Rothfus said.

Cameron's attempt to win Parliament's support for immediate strikes failed, in part because of memories of faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq War. U.N. inspectors investigating the alleged chemical attack are due to leave Syria on Saturday.

Both Casey and White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed comparisons with the intelligence claims made in the run-up to the Iraq War, in which the Bush administration's claims of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be incorrect.

“The administration, of course, has access to intelligence that not everyone has access to. I think the public record is pretty clear, and I have no doubt that if I had a more thorough review of the intel that I would come to the same conclusion,” Casey said.

The Associated Press quoted several anonymous intelligence sources Thursday who described the intelligence as “not a slam dunk,” a reference to former CIA Director George Tenet's 2002 claim that the Iraqi WMD claim was a “slam dunk.”

“I know some people want to make the comparison to Iraq. Those historical comparisons are usually wrong,” Casey said. “I think we did learn lessons from Iraq, and that's why the administration has been deliberative in reaching its conclusion.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy