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US divided on possible Syria strike

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2013-09-05 10:55

Unlike the vote in the British Parliament on Aug 29, which rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal for airstrikes against Syria, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday gave the green light to President Barack Obama for military action.

The committee approved a revised resolution that authorizes military action against the Syrian government, but rules out any commitment of ground forces. The new resolution restricts the military strikes to 60 days. Obama can extend it by another 30 days, if he notifies Congress and if Congress does not object.

Obama decided to take the issue to Congress on Saturday in the face of criticism over his planned attack. His original resolution has now been narrowed in scope, and it gained support from key members of the Senate from both parties, as Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have made their case in the past two days.

However, their testimony at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday showed a sharp divide among members.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday expressed China's deep concern over the possible unilateral military action against Syria.

He said China firmly believes that a political settlement is the only realistic path through the Syrian issue and said any action by the international community should comply with the UN Charter and basic international norms to avoid complicating the Syrian crisis and worsen the disaster in the Middle East.

Doubts abound among both US lawmakers and a public wary of further wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky and the most vocal opponent of military action, said he believes that an attack on Syria would create more turbulence and danger in the region, and may not even disable the Syrian government's ability to launch chemical attacks.

Public opposition in the US was on the rise over the Labor Day weekend, which saw protests in many cities, including in Washington just outside the White House.

The hearing on Tuesday was interrupted by protesters, including anti-war activist Medea Benjamin, who shouted, "Nobody wants this war," before she was forced out of the room. On Wednesday, Benjamin and her colleagues appeared in the House hearing, sitting several rows behind Kerry and raising their hands, which were painted red to symbolize blood.

A Pew Center poll released on Tuesday showed that 48 percent of US citizens oppose military airstrikes against Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks that the White House blames on Syria. Twenty-nine percent support the proposed airstrikes.

The poll found that 75 percent believe that US airstrikes in Syria are likely to create a backlash against the US and its allies in the region, and 61 percent think it would be likely to lead to a long-term US military commitment there.

Meanwhile, only 33 percent believe airstrikes are likely to be effective in discouraging the purported use of chemical weapons, and roughly half think they are not likely to achieve the goal.

Many people in the US are troubled by the idea that the US may be fighting on the same side as some extremist groups, including al-Qaida, in opposing the Syrian government. Some have questioned the double standard that previous administrations have adopted, given that the US did not respond after Saddam Hussein killed many more people with nerve gas in the 1980s. Iraqi was a US ally at the time.

Some US citizens have frowned on the possible absence of authorization from the UN Security Council, where Russia and China are set to veto after a previous resolution on Libya in 2011 was abused by the US and NATO to pursue regime change. Some others lamented the lack of support this time even from NATO allies and feel that only a few countries, such as France and Turkey, may join the military action.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was among those expressing skepticism about how a promise of "no boots on the ground" can be honored if the situation gets out of control.

Still, not many US citizens have questioned the logic of why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would use chemical weapons at a time when he was gaining the upper hand in the battle with the rebels and when UN chemical weapons investigators were already in the country.

Others, meanwhile, are asking whether airstrikes might actually backfire and strengthen Assad's grip on power.

Much of the debate about the planned airstrikes centers around whether the US will maintain its position of respect around the world - rather than how to stop the civil war in Syria and a growing humanitarian disaster that has seen more Syrians fleeing home since Obama threatened airstrikes.

The UN and countries around Syria, which together host more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees, called on the international community Wednesday to "overcome differences" to stop the fighting in Syria.

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