10 Syria Questions for John Kerry and Chuck Hagel

We need a genuine debate before a decision is made on whether or not to intervene in Syria.

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The Senate Foreign Relations committee and its chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., approved an intervention in Syria requested by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

This week, as members of Congress queue to ask Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, questions about Syria and about the Obama administration's intentions, strategy and objectives, it is absolutely critical that they ask the right questions.

America's military brass, and the impact they have on the civilian side of any defense debate, will be in full effect and will, no doubt, intimidate. This was a clear problem in past presidential evidence-proving cases, with the Iraq War machine pulling out all the brass stops to impress upon Congress and the American public that its case was unquestionable. When 80 percent of retired 3 and 4 stars work for the defense industry, the pool for dissent, by members of Congress or the American public, is pretty small.

Bearing this in mind, here are the top 10 questions, assembled by my colleagues Kate Gould, Elizabeth Beavers and I, which any member of Congress should ask of the Pentagon and the State Department as they come to the Hill this week and next.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

1: Has the Obama administration considered convening a meeting of state parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to respond to these violations in Syria? All 189 signatories have the obligation to respond to violations collectively, and the U.S. has a responsibility to work with a broad international coalition to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. Why aren't we doing this?

2: Now that Iran's President Hasan Rouhani has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and reportedly initiated a call with Russia to discuss both governments' opposition to the use of chemical weapons, has the Obama administration considered engaging Iran's president by asking that the Iranian government put pressure on the Assad regime to refrain from future chemical weapons attacks? And if not, why haven't we?

3: Given that Russia, Iran, and other regional stakeholders (state and nonstate), likely have the most influence on President Bashar al-Assad and his government, what is the Obama administration doing to engage them? There is an unprecedented opportunity to exploit fractures in Iranian and Russian support of the Assad regime, so what is the administration doing to put pressure on them to use their influence to prevent future chemical weapons attacks?

[Vote: Is Obama Right to Ask for Congressional Approval on Bombing Syria?]

4: The Obama administration has asserted that there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, only a political one, so what is our – and more importantly, the international community's – political solution for Syria? As the International Crisis Group pointed out in their recent report on Syria, “the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be re-energized in its aftermath.” The Crisis Group, one of few international organizations with a longstanding presence on the ground in Syria, is unequivocal that such efforts could not be re-energized in the wake of a U.S. attack. How would you respond to these concerns?

5: While the Obama administration suggests that the U.S. attack would be limited in scope, what happens if President Assad retaliates to a U.S. attack? How are you planning to mitigate blowback? If the Assad regime responds by attacking a U.S. warship off the Syrian coast, or attacks U.S. military bases in neighboring countries, what is America's plan to prevent further spillover and escalated violence?

6: By rushing to a unilateral military response, and ignoring the political solutions afforded by international law, how can the U.S. credibly ask that Syria respect the same systems of international law? Why hasn't the U.S. government submitted a new resolution to the U.N. Security Council, akin to the one produced on Libya, making the case within international law precedents and precepts?

7: What are you doing to actively engage the Arab League and the 57-state Organization for Islamic Cooperation, knowing how critical their influence is – as Arab state and Muslim state actors – in putting pressure on the Syrian president? Why aren't you working with them to transparently verify chemical weapons use, build consensus within the Arab and Muslim world for a ceasefire, and work with the international community to decide next steps for Assad and Syria's political transition?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

8: How are you fully exploring and exploiting all opportunities within the International Criminal Court to bring Bashar Assad to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity? These are punishable offences and should be prosecuted by the international legal community, especially since Assad will be breaking international legal precedent if he's found guilty (again, by international court of law) of using chemical weapons.

9: How, specifically, do you expect a military solution to resolve this political problem? As the administration has emphasized on countless occasions that this is not a conflict that contains a military solution, but rather a political one, doesn't a military response produce more likelihood of blowback and regional spillover and less likelihood of political stability and regional security?

10: The events in Syria have been met with near-unanimous international condemnation, so why would the U.S. instead act unilaterally with unsupported military action, risking the erosion of joint international condemnation for the use of chemical weapons? Why wouldn't we want to act in conjunction with the international community and in keeping with international law?

Going forward, if members of Congress and their staff ask these questions, we may have a genuine debate this week on the Hill. If not, it will be another show of pomp and circumstance, sound and fury, signifying little to nothing. We've seen this act before as the Pentagon's brass was rolled out for previous invasions. It is time we do things differently in Congress and ask the tough questions before the bombs start. It's called due diligence and Congressional oversight. Let's use it.

Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

  • Read Daniel Gallington: Obama Can Talk to Congress About Syria, But Must Then Take Out Assad
  • Read Drew Cohen: President Obama Should Make the Legal Case for Bombing Syria
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