Republican critics have long accused the Obama administration of having no Syria strategy. But with tens of thousands dead and millions more fleeing the country, even some of the White House's closest allies are calling for the administration to do more to lessen the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
"I don't hesitate to point out that we're not happy with the way things are going," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in an interview. "I don't view it as a criticism, but I do view it as a prod."
In recent weeks, Kaine has joined forces with Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to demand that the administration outline a plan that will address the growing humanitarian disaster in the country. Kaine's resolution requires the president to submit to Congress within 90 days a "more robust U.S. strategy for addressing the Syria humanitarian crisis." He introduced it in March and it passed unanimously in the Senate last week. The resolution coincided with a wave of criticisms by Rubio and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that the administration "has no Syrian strategy."
A longtime ally of the White House, Kaine has walked a narrow line when it comes to Syria. He believes the U.S. should intervene more directly in Syria than the administration has been willing to do, but he also has defended the White House against heated attacks by his colleagues.
In the interview, Kaine stressed that lawmakers needed to be "realistic" when it comes to expectations about progress in Syria in the absence of a U.S. military engagement. He pointed out that he voted to authorize the use of military force in Syria last September while many in Congress -- particularly on the Republican side of the aisle -- vocally opposed such action. "I see no appetite by those talking tough now for military action," he said. "We should all be able to agree that more aggressive humanitarian action is desirable."
At the same time, Kaine - who Obama had seriously considered as his running mate in 2008 -- has been unafraid to criticize his fellow Harvard Law School alumnus's Syria policy. "I'm trying to prod the administration," he said in the interview.
Kaine said he wants the administration to work toward implementing a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council in February that calls on Damascus to allow aid to flow into Syria from neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The resolution also requires that all parties, in particular the Syrian government, "promptly allow rapid safe and unhindered access" for aid workers to needy civilians in rebel-controlled areas. To the dismay of international observers, Syria has continued to impose a wide range of bureaucratic hurdles to delivering aid, which Kaine described as a brazen violation of the U.N. resolution. In response, Kaine said, the administration needed to be more aggressive about enforcing the resolution. "It's now time to take the next step," he said. "Let's just start the deliveries. We have the right to do it."
The administration counters that the United States has provided $1.7 billion in aid to Syria, surpassing the contributions of any other countries. The American aid has reached more than 4.2 million people inside Syria and more than 2.5 million outside of it.
"Nobody is content with the situation in Syria," a State Department official said on background. "We're constantly looking at ways to end the conflict and end the suffering of the Syrian people."
When it comes to the U.N. resolution, the official said the department is currently working with members of the Security Council and international partners on how to "ensure the resolution is fully implemented." The official did not go into specifics.
While pointed in some of his criticisms, Kaine has generally treated the administration far more gently than most of his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During an April 3 hearing, Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ.) and ranking member Corker came down harshly on Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, for the department's refusal to outline a Syria strategy to Congress.
"Without a coherent Syria policy from day one, the administration has contributed to the worsening conflict through inaction, limiting our options, diminishing U.S. credibility and putting U.S. interests and our country's security at risk," Corker said.
Menendez questioned how the situation on the ground would ever improve for the Syrian rebels if U.S. policy remains static. "If you cannot stop a helicopter or a plane that is bombing you, if you cannot stop a tank that is crushing your community, then I don't know how we ever change the calculus here," he said.
According to Senate aides, many in the committee do not want to be seen as merely standing by as the mass slaughter in Syria continues unabated. This week's commemoration of the 20 year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide offered a haunting reminder of the consequences of Western inaction. Last week, the United Nations counted one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, among the 9 million Syrians displaced from their homes in the conflict.
But beyond scheduling hearings and sending out press releases, there is little Congress can do to force the administration's hand.