Republican Jewish Coalition endorses Obama’s Syria call


We hear a lot of rhetoric about putting country above politics, but the Republican Jewish Coalition comes through this week with a robust endorsement of President Obama’s call for congressional backing for a Syria strike.

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) issued an Action Alert today to our 45,000 members, calling on them to reach out to their elected officials in the House and Senate, to ask them to support the upcoming resolution authorizing the use of military force against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.

The Action Alert stressed the moral threshold that has been crossed by Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.

We also emphasized that it is in America’s vital national interests that we continue to be able to project – in Syria and elsewhere – a credible military deterrent.

The RJC believes that this not a Republican or Democrat issue. We encouraged our members to reach out in a bipartisan fashion to Republican and Democrat officials to ask for their support of the resolution.

Okay, so the statement does not mention Obama (the action alert does), and the use of “Democrat” as an adjective remains as absurd as ever.

And let me caveat, naturally, that I can’t enter into whether a strike is the right or wrong way to address the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

But what is salient here is that the RJC makes a case that goes against its partisan mission in two ways: It endorses a Democratic president’s legislation (I remember generic praise from Jewish Democrats for past GOP presidents, but I don’t remember a specific endorsement of a legislative initiative.) More significantly, the RJC is wading forcefully into an emerging internecine struggle within its own party. Opposition to a Syria intervention is not confined to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). A number of establishment mainstreamers (including Liz Cheney) are opposed as well.

The debate we should be having on Syria


On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One, departed for Sweden and left behind a looming political disaster. Despite the endorsement of Republican and Democratic House leaders, many members of Congress remain deeply skeptical about the president's proposal to carry out cruise missile strikes in Syria. And they should be.

A few dozen missile strikes will not alter the military balance in Syria's civil war. They will not punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the point where it moves him to the bargaining table. The Syrian autocrat is engaged in a ruthless fight for survival. Obama is not. As long as that dynamic continues, limited military action will have a limited impact.

Tomahawk cruise missiles are the latest wonder weapon to be used to lull Americans into thinking they can have war without cost. (For now, they've replaced drones.) In a sign of just how limited the American effort will be, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a resolution Tuesday night that would limit any military action to sixty days, with one thirty day extension.

Under the best-case scenario outlined by administration officials, American destroyers will lob a few dozen missiles at Syria late next week. Washington's credibility will be magically restored. And there will be little pain, risk or casualties for Americans.

That is wishful thinking.

At the same time, opponents of military action on the left and right argue that we can ignore what is happening in Syria. The Sunnis who make up 70 percent of Syria's population and their Gulf backers will give up, some argue. Or if Assad wins, a magnanimous Hezbollah and Iran will not be emboldened by his successful use of chemical weapons.

In truth, Syria is on a path to become a failed state split between Sarin-wielding Alawites and Sunni jihadists. The largest refugee crisis in the world since Vietnam will destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and potentially ignite a regional war. And America's true red lines – Israel's security and the steady flow of Middle Eastern oil into the global economy – will be threatened.

A gaping hole in the president's response to Syria is that it does not grapple with the core question: what should America's role in the Middle East be? Defender of chemical weapons bans? Defender of oil flows? Defender of Israel and no one else?

Political realities, of course, limit what type of military action Obama can propose. War weary Americans want no part of another conflict in the Middle East. But they deserve a realistic, clear-eyed strategy in the region. President George W. Bush's invasion-centric approach to countering militancy clearly failed. But Obama's hands-off approach is not working either.

For six years, Obama has successfully struck a middle ground in foreign policy, using drone strikes and a time-limited troop surge in Afghanistan to appear tough but anti-war. His plan to strike Syria could be the straw that breaks the back of Obama's split-the-difference approach.

Barring a major personal lobbying effort by the president, a skeptical House is likely to reject Obama's request for an authorization. An ABC News poll released Tuesday found that 60 percent of Americans oppose a unilateral US missile strike on Syria.

To be fair, an array of factors beyond Obama's control have come together to turn Syria into the administration's perfect storm. Assad's depravity, Russian President Vladimir Putin's cynicism and a fractious Syrian opposition make up a rogue's gallery of stubborn opponents and unappealing allies. And the war in Iraq – which Obama opposed – has created sweeping isolationism.

Obama also has himself to blame. Traits that have been steadily building in his administration for the last several years have made Syria harder to solve.

First, it is unclear how deeply Obama, in fact, wants to act in Syria. A famously detached president seems half-engaged. Instead of Obama making impassioned speeches last week to the American people, Secretary of State John Kerry did. After making a surprise announcement on Saturday that he would seek a congressional authorization to strike Syria, Obama went golfing.

Tracking the president's personal involvement in the debate ahead will show his true intent. If Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others remain the primary administration voices lobbying Congress, it is a sign of Obama's ambivalence.

In an ominous sign for the White House, opposition to the strikes is growing on the far right and left. Lead by Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, libertarians say no vital U.S. interests are at stake in Syria. Citing Iraq, liberals who enjoy generous security and rights at home blithely dismiss the idea of enforcing international norms abroad.

As historian Douglas Brinkley noted, one of the oddest things about the American response to Assad's chemical weapons attack is the lack of moral outrage. Beyond Kerry, few Americans have expressed anger at a barbaric attack that killed 1,400 people, including 400 children. Yes, we must not repeat the mistakes of Iraq. But that does not absolve us from seriously grappling with the nightmarish scenarios that are emerging in the Middle East.

There are no quick or easy solutions in Syria. Even if the U.S. acts, it will not stabilize the country. But we need a comprehensive strategy.

At this point, the best of several bad options is to mount extensive U.S. strikes, arm the moderate opposition and try to negotiate a political settlement with Russia and Iran. A Tomahawk-created peace is a fantasy.


David Rohde is a Reuters columnist.

As Israelis mob gas mask distribution centers, army urges calm


Daniela Hayoum arrived at a Tel Aviv post office at 7 a.m. and took a number.

The line of people waiting for gas masks was long and Hayoum stepped away to run errands. She returned in the afternoon to find hundreds of Israelis crowding under a hot sun on the building’s wide steps, some holding umbrellas and others food.

On the street below, medics treated a woman suffering from the heat. On the sidewalk, men sold cold water and bagels. Hayoum began to push her way through.

“They want me to stand for four hours here,” said Hayoum, of nearby Ramat Gan. “I don’t trust the government or the army. They say we’re prepared, but the Home Front Command won’t answer the phone.”

For two days, Israelis have been descending on centers like this to receive free government-issued gas masks in preparation for a possible Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, citing the long lines, the government extended the hours of distribution.

The gas mask frenzy signifies a striking mood change here. An alleged chemical weapons attack last week by the Syrian government and subsequent murmurings of a possible U.S. strike have focused Israeli attention on the Syrian civil war like never before.

U.S. officials had harsh words following the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “moral obscenity” and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of attempting a cover-up after carrying out the attack. The White House reportedly has begun preparations for a strike on Syria in coordination with European allies.

Although the United States appeared to tone down its rhetoric on Thursday, the fear in Israel is that Assad will respond to an American strike by bombing Israel. On Monday, a government official in Iran, which backs the Assad regime, told an official state news agency that “the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

The Israel Defense Forces called up nearly 1,000 reservists this week. Following his third security consultation in as many days — a rare occurrence — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure Israelis.

“There is no reason to change daily routines,” Netanyahu said Wednesday. “At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens.”

Still, the IDF is urging calm and says the chances of a Syrian attack are low. An IDF source told JTA that the Home Front Command has not issued any special instructions to civilians and that “what you’re seeing now is a response from the public.”

“Right now there isn’t any sense of panic,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “There isn’t a freakishly high concern. Everybody is relatively calm. If it was clear that there could be a chance that something would happen, we’d see the consequences of that in terms of Home Front Command instructions to the public.”

Daila Amos, a spokesperson for the Golan Regional Council, said life is continuing normally on the Golan Heights, where stray shells from the fighting across the Syrian border have fallen several times in the past year and where residents are used to a heightened troop presence.

“Unfortunately, during this last year the idea that something could happen has been on our minds,” Amos told JTA. “We hear the bombs almost every day. To think that a number of meters from us these terrible things are happening is not easy.”

Several Israeli analysts say that Assad will likely refrain from attacking Israel even in the case of a U.S. strike. Bombing Israel would draw the IDF into the Syrian civil war, which would weaken Assad and could turn the tide of battle decisively against him, they say.

But Meir Elran, director of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says he no longer believes Assad is acting rationally.

“I wouldn’t attack Israel,” Elran said. “But I also wouldn’t use chemical weapons against my own people.”

The timing of a U.S. strike also remains unclear. There is some question over whether Assad himself ordered the attack and United Nations inspectors are still collecting evidence from the site. They are expected to report to the U.N. secretary-general over the weekend.

Still, Israelis aren’t taking any chances.

Hila Kostinsky, who returned to Israel two weeks ago after 12 years in the United States, said she felt a responsibility to get gas masks for her two children.

“We’re still trying to protect them,” she said. “It’s what you expect when you move back to Israel.”

Securing Syria chemical weapons may take tens of thousands of troops


The United States and its allies are discussing a worst-case scenario that could require tens of thousands of ground troops to go into Syria to secure chemical and biological weapons sites following the fall of President Bashar Assad’s government, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

These secret discussions assume that all of Assad’s security forces disintegrate, leaving chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria vulnerable to pillaging. The scenario also assumes these sites could not be secured or destroyed solely through aerial bombings, given health and environmental risks.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain the sensitive discussions, said the United States still had no plans to put boots on the ground in Syria. President Barack Obama’s administration has, in fact, so far refused to provide lethal support to the rebels fighting to oust Assad’s regime and the Pentagon has played down the possibility of implementing a no-fly zone anytime soon.

“There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” the official said, adding U.S. forces would likely play a role in such a mission.

Two diplomatic sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said as many as 50,000 or 60,000 ground forces may be needed if officials’ worst fears are realized, plus additional support forces.

Even a force of 60,000 troops, however, would not be large enough for peacekeeping and would only be the amount required to secure the weapons sites – despite some of the appearances of a Iraq-style occupation force, the diplomatic sources cautioned.

It is unclear at this stage how such a military mission would be organized and which nations might participate. But some European allies have indicated they are unlikely to join, the sources said.

The White House declined comment on specific contingency plans. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said that while the U.S. government believes the chemical weapons are under the Syrian government’s control, “Given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime’s increasing attacks on the Syrian people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.

“In addition to monitoring their stockpiles, we are actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors – and our friends in the international community – to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them,” Vietor said.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

POTENTIALLY DOZENS OF SITES

While there is no complete accounting of Syria’s unconventional weapons, it is widely believed to have stockpiles of nerve agents such as VX, sarin and tabun.

The U.S. official said there were potentially dozens of chemical and biological weapons sites scattered around the country.

Securing them could not be left to an aerial bombing, which could lead to the dispersion of those agents, the official said.

“There could be second-order effects that could be extremely problematic,” the official said of aerial bombing.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that it was important that Syrian security forces be held together when Assad is forced from power, citing, in particular, their ability to secure chemical weapons sites.

“They do a pretty good job of securing those sites,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN in July. “If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.”

The United States, Israel and Western powers have been discussing the nightmarish possibility that some of Assad’s chemical weapons could make their way to militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, might try to get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

Precise quantities and configurations of chemical weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tons of agents annually.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are several suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible production site for biological weapons.

Editing by Warren Strobel