The Cable

The Mysterious Source of Syria's Chemical Weapons and the 4 Other Biggest Takeaways from Syria Hearings, Day 2

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.

First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.

"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."

Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.

The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."

The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.

Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.

Below, four other highlights from from the House session:

Military Strikes On The Cheap:  Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.

It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?

Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.

"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."

In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.

"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."

Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.

The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.

Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.

That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.

Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.

His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.

"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"

The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.

"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."

Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.

"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"

It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Is This the Weakest Argument Against a Syria Attack?

There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America.

But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration.

As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it's facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don't oppose President Obama's geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn't have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade.

"We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday. "We have to take care of our own people first."

Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, agrees.  "No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it," he said. "We must not forget this president has put us on the brink of a hollowed force. Our troops are stretched thin, the defense budget has been slashed to historic levels." Another hawkish Republican, Rep. Mike Turner, also cited sequestration as a rationale for voting against a Syria strike.

But analysts who've crunched the numbers on a stand-off strike -- the type of limited operation the administration says it plans to carry out -- say the Pentagon's base budget -- more than $500 billion -- is plenty capable of covering the strike without significant sacrifice to military readiness elsewhere. A major reason for that: The money for a Syria strike has already been spent.

For instance, the Tomahawk cruise missiles have already been paid for and of the five Navy destroyers on station, four were already scheduled to be on deployment. "The increased marginal cost is really just the cost of fuel to keep one extra destroyer on deployment," said Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, who favors intervention in Syria. "From the Navy perspective, this will be as inexpensive an operation in the near term as is possible."

Gordon Adams, who was in charge of national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, agrees. "Incremental costs for operations, less than $100 million in my book," he told The Cable. (The additional missiles would be extra.) "The proxy would be the Clinton strike on Afghan training camps and the Sudan in 1998 - hardly noticed on the budgetary radar screen."

As it stands, the White House is in the midst of a Capitol Hill blitz to convince lawmakers to authorize a military strike against Syria. On Tuesday, it won a big victory with endorsements from House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. However, a senior GOP aide tells The Cable that the Republican leadership won't be whipping the vote, which leaves the White House vulnerable to defections by pro-military Republicans such as Inhofe, Turner and McKeon who might ordinarily support such an intervention.

The relatively modest cost of the effort has left some in Congress thinking the sequestration excuse is more political than budgetary.

"I was laughing hysterically at arguments that we shouldn't do Syria strikes because of sequester," one Congressional aide told The Cable. "You can be against a strike for many reasons, but that one is pure bullshit."

Of course, arguments by the sequester doves could prove prescient if the Syrian intervention explodes into a larger military engagement. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned about the exorbitant costs of committing U.S. resources to a no fly zone. However, the White House insists its aims are limited. "I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me," Obama said last week, noting that he was not mulling any option that would require "boots on the ground" or an extended campaign.

"This is going to be a contained, confined and surgical strike,"  Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who has already had three briefings on Syria in the last week tells The Cable. " It's not going to add significantly to the budget and you're not going to need a supplemental funding resolution as we did in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Of course, there is the issue of the future Pentagon budget having to account for new cruise missiles. But, as Harmer noted, cruise missiles "are pretty cheap these days."

"Once those TLAM [Tomahawk Land Attack Missile] get fired, they will have to be replaced in the budget ‘out years'- and that will be a cost that has to be accounted for in future budgets - if the Navy expends 100 TLAM in a strike on Syria, it is going to need to buy an extra 100 TLAM next year, or the year after, through the normal budget process," he said. "The ‘flyaway' cost is somewhere around $700,000. It is not chump change, but for the impact the weapon has, it is pretty cost effective."