The Cable

Rand Paul Tells White House to Call Off War Vote

The Senate's leading critic of President Obama's war plans in Syria is now calling for a "permanent hold" on the vote to authorize military force in Congress following a surprise proposal from Russia to avert a military confrontation.

On Tuesday, as the Obama administration ramped up its lobbying on Capitol Hill, Sen. Rand Paul convened a group of some 30 lawmakers skeptical of a military intervention in Syria. The group -- which included Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) and two dozen others -- discussed different strategies for staving off a military intervention and the desire to call off a vote to authorize military force.

"I think everybody is hopeful that putting the vote on a permanent hold would be the best route forward," Paul said in an interview with The Cable.

The push to delay a vote comes as Syria hawks, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain, renew their push for Congressional authorization for a strike. In the meantime, the White House agreed Tuesday to talks on a Russian plan that would avert a military strike by having Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community.

"Today's development should make Members of Congress more willing to vote yes,"  said McCain in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham. "This will give the President additional leverage to press Russia and Syria to make good on their proposal to take the weapons of mass destruction out of Assad's hands." Kerry reiterated that point during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "Nothing has changed," he said, referring to the request for authorization.

Paul said hawks such as McCain and Graham who are now taking credit for the potential breakthrough on Syria are incoherent.

"Their message has morphed into an argument that is inconsistent with their old argument that the president doesn't need Congressional authorization and should've bombed Syria weeks ago," said Paul. "The people on the other side haven't been concerned with leverage. They've been wanting to drop bombs from the outset. There wouldn't have been time for leverage if we hadn't demanded the president first seek authorization."

While Paul was skeptical that Moscow would carry through on its proposal, he encouraged the president to pursue the potential breakthrough energetically. "We have to trust but verify whether they're going to be sincere," he said, echoing the statement by Obama on Monday night. "All of us are concerned about Syria's chemical weapons. No one wants them used on civilians or our soldiers."

He also tweaked Obama's claim that his threats of military intervention led to this diplomatic opportunity. "If he needs to claim credit for avoiding war, I'm fine with that. I think avoiding war is more important than claiming credit," he said. "Those of us who have delayed this bombing are just happy to get to a point where we're negotiating instead of fighting."

Although Paul said he thinks a vote to authorize military force should be delayed, it's not because he's predicting a majority of "yes" votes in the House of Representatives. According to a Congressional source who attended this morning's anti-war meeting, the broad consensus is that any vote for war would lose in the House. "I was surprised by how positive all the members sounded about defeating this vote. There seems to be a groundswell of opposition against it in the House, and all the Members are very passionate about it," an aide told The Cable. Concerns remain that if the vote passed in the Senate, the White House may consider that authority enough to wage a strike.

As for the GOP leadership in the House, John Boehner (R-OH) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) remain supportive of Obama's Syria strike while other top Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and James Lankford (R-OK) have voiced skepticism. Many rank-and-file House members strongly oppose a Syria strike.

Meanwhile, in a positive development for the White House, a number of war-weary Democratic lawmakers, such as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn), praised the president for his tough stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "I think it's a direct result of the president saying he's ready to do whatever is necessary to back up what he's already said," said Cummings.

On both sides of the aisle and in the White House, skepticism remains about whether Russia and Syria will follow through on any deal. "There was general agreement that the CW deal is going to delay the vote," said the aide in Tuesday's anti-war meeting. "But no one trusts the Russians."

The Cable

Obama Admin Keeping Syrian Rebel Leader Out of DC, Congressional Sources Say

As skepticism mounts in Congress over a proposed military strike in Syria, hawks on Capitol Hill are questioning why the Obama administration isn't using one of its most powerful advocates for intervention: General Salim Idriss, commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council.

Long heralded as the poster child for Syria's moderate rebels, Idriss has yet to travel to Washington to make his case for U.S. intervention -- and it's not for lack of trying. Congressional sources and members of the Syrian opposition tell The Cable that the Obama administration has delayed or cancelled at least three scheduled trips for Idriss to come to Washington since March.

"The White House has stepped in at the eleventh hour to cancel planned trips in which tickets were bought and hotels were booked for Gen. Idriss to come to Washington," a frustrated Congressional aide tells The Cable. "It's beyond me why the administration is trying to prevent a very articulate person from answering the fundamental question that almost every lawmaker wants to know: Who the Hell is the opposition?"

A German-trained engineer with moderate views, Idriss has attracted the West with his nonsectarian outlook ever since he defected from the Assad regime last summer. 

To trip planners in the Syrian opposition, the State Department keeps coming up with new excuses to call off planned trips. In March, Idriss sent letters to U.S. officials asking for night vision goggles, humanitarian aid and training. Afterwards, the department blocked a trip to Washington telling opposition leaders it didn't want to the bring the opposition's military leaders to Washington before welcoming its political leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. In late June, after the administration determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, the department blocked another planned trip. "We were told that they didn't want Idriss to come yet because they didn't think they could send him back with anything [i.e. weapons]" said a Syrian opposition source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Following the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 in which hundreds were killed, another effort to bring Idriss to Washington was again delayed by the State Department. "They thought it wasn't necessary because there was enough momentum behind the vote," said the opposition source.

But whatever momentum there may have been seems to have grinded to a halt. Preliminary whip counts show mounting opposition to a Syria strike in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. Polls uniformly show that Americans are hostile to an assault on President Bashar al-Assad's regime: The latest survey, by CNN, found that 72 percent of Americans believe that an attack would not achieve anything for the United States.

Now, more than ever, advocates of intervention say Idriss's presence is needed to boost the case for surgical strikes. "People need to see that this is the leader of the armed opposition," Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Cable. "He is the only one who has the ability to reassure members of Congress that the armed opposition is moderate and that the extremists can be marginalized."

It's still possible that Idris will find his way to Washington for a last-minute charm offensive. Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that Idris "is prepared" to travel to Washington to speak with Congress. At the time, the general was making his case in Germany and London. But opposition sources say those plans have yet to materialize.

The White House and the State Department did not reply to requests for comment, but there may be other reasons the administration wants to keep Idris at arm's length. While his Supreme Military Council has gained a great deal of international exposure, it remains of limited influence among fighting groups on the ground, which has led some officials to prefer that he focus on building stronger networks in Syria rather than yuck it up in Washington.

"The Supreme Military Council does not have a lot of traction on the ground," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow Andrew Tabler. "[T]hey haven't been supported with arms, and they're spending a lot of time in Western capitals, instead of inside the country spreading their influence."

Still, some hawks in Congress say those tactical concerns should take a backseat to the job of convincing lawmakers to authorize a strike in Syria. "Lawmakers, especially Republicans need to know more about the opposition," said the congressional aide. "How many are radical? What percentage is politically-predisposed to hating the West? You saw that question from lawmakers all last week."

Syrian activists, meanwhile, find themselves on the defensive -- forced to beat back a litany of criticisms about the proposed U.S. mission in Syria and the opposition itself. Farah Atassi, a Syrian-American activist who supports intervention, says the media's constant attempt to paint the uprising as a bout of sectarian bloodletting misrepresents the conflict.

"What strikes me most in this debate is the amount of misinformation and ignorance when it comes to the roots of the Syrian revolution," she says. "Many people are under the illusion that a civil war is going on in Syria. This revolution was started by ordinary Syrian citizens -- not by radicals, extremists, or Islamists."

The Obama administration has relied on Kerry to address Congressional concerns about extremist elements within the Syrian opposition - primarily the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Kerry played down the importance of such groups during Congressional testimony last week, saying that only 15 to 25 percent of rebels belonged to extremist groups and that more moderate forces are getting stronger by the day.

The success of the administration's pitch will become clearer after this week's vote in the Senate. But as the "no" votes stack up, some hawks wish they had Idriss on their side right about now.