The Senate voted 92-6 today to require the Pentagon to report on options for using U.S. military assets to degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ability to use air power against his own people.
The amendment, led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) with Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), gives the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta 90 days after the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act to report back to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on military options in Syria. The principle purpose of the legislation is "to advance the goals of President Obama of stopping the killing of civilians in Syria and creating conditions for a transition to a democratic, pluralistic, political system in Syria."
The resolution does not explicitly call for the Assad to step down in Syria, a matter of contention when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution on Syria earlier this year. It also explicitly does not authorize the use of military force in Syria.
The legislation does say that any U.S. military activity with regard to Syria should be done in conjunction with allies, should not involve U.S. boots on the ground, and should minimize the risk to U.S. forces as well as financial costs to U.S. taxpayers.
The mandated and classified report must include detailed evaluations of the resources needed and potential effectiveness of at least three military options: deploying Patriot missiles to neighboring countries, establishing no-fly zones over Syrian population centers, and conducting limited airstrikes aimed at Assad's air power assets. NATO agreed Tuesday to agree to Turkey's request for Patriot missile batteries on its border with Syria.
"This is asking that the United States, in consultation between the Department of Defense and this Senate, make reasonable assessments of what our path forward in dealing with the tragic situation in Syria might be," Coons said in a floor speech. "This amendment is clear that it will not consider ground troops being deployed onto Syrian territory, that it will only look at means that might be used by the United States or allies to stop Assad's reckless, relentless, criminal use of air power to murder his own civilians, his own citizens."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the amendment being passed by unanimous consent, forcing the roll-call vote. Paul argued that the legislation could be used as a back door for greater military involvement and expressed skepticism that the Syrian opposition could be trusted to govern if Assad falls.
"Senator Paul asked what I think really is the central question. He said, ‘How can we be confident that the opposition will be tolerant, inclusive, peaceful?'" Coons said. "That is exactly the core question at issue for us going forward. Should the United States stand on the sidelines as Bashar al-Assad massacres tens of thousands more of his civilians? Or should we consider what ways we can be involved?"
Hill staffers told The Cable that the unusually high support for the amendment was indicative of the Senate's frustration with both the quantity and quality of the information the administration was sharing regarding how much Pentagon has planned for military contingencies inside Syria.
"The vote reflects a latent but growing uneasiness and dissatisfaction with where our Syria policy is, given developments on the ground, and a desire to see options," one senior Senate aide said.