Lobbying on Syria has inspired coalitions of the unlikely, aligning President Barack Obama with Sheldon Adelson, the Republican billionaire who spent about $70 million trying to defeat him last year, in the push for a military response to the use of chemical weapons.
Opponents of U.S. military intervention in the civil war-torn Middle Eastern country include Occupy Wall Street, which protests against Wall Street profits; Code Pink, an antiwar group; and the Russians.
Interest groups and activists are ratcheting up their advocacy ahead of the Sept. 9 return of Congress to Washington, when lawmakers plan to take up Obama’s request for authorization of a limited military strike. The request came after U.S. officials concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Aug. 21 fired chemical weapons into rebel-held areas near Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children.
“For our credibility, we have to do something,” said Morris Amitay, founder of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee.
The president has said a military response is necessary to uphold a longstanding international ban on chemical weapons use and to deter Assad from using them again on his people or such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, two U.S. allies.
Obama made the same argument Aug. 30 on a 30-minute conference call with 1,000 rabbis. Obama conducts such a call annually. This time, at the White House’s request, Syria was the topic of the first question, asked by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis.
While Iran wasn’t mentioned in the call, it was viewed by participants as part of the context of the president’s remarks. ‘We have a very strong stake in the world taking seriously our insistence that weapons of mass destruction should not proliferate,” said one of those on the call, Rabbi Rick Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a New York-based organization of Reform rabbis.
The support Obama is getting from pro-Israel groups in the U.S. is important because of their history of political influence. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups have long helped secure continued U.S. aid to Israel, mobilizing activists who visit or call lawmakers. The effort is supplemented by several political action committees that donate to candidates depending on their support for Israel.
The pro-Israel community contributed $14.5 million to federal campaigns for the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than the $11.1 million in donations by the defense aerospace industry, one of the biggest and most consistent political contributors.
While most of the Jewish groups’ donations lean Democratic, Adelson alone transformed the 2012 Republican primary when he and his wife used $15 million in private funds to sustain the unsuccessful candidacy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then poured $53 million into groups advancing Republican nominee Mitt Romney. In all, Adelson and his wife donated $93 million to Republican causes in the 2012 campaign, center data shows.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which counts Adelson as a board member, yesterday sent an “action alert” to its 45,000 members, directing them to tell Congress to authorize force. “This is not a partisan issue,” the coalition said in its message.
It spent $6.4 million against Obama last year, according to the center, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign spending.
Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner, supports the coalition’s Syria message, his spokesman Ron Reese said in an e-mail.
The RJC’s counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, today added its voice to a chorus of U.S.-based Jewish groups urging military intervention. Others include AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Their advocacy began after a telephone briefing yesterday with White House deputy national security advisers Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes, who outlined the case for action against Syria, according to a participant who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the group decided to act before the Jewish high holidays, when rabbis will likely speak on Syria. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight.
Jewish groups said their concern was that a failure to take action against Syria would send lessons to other countries, most notably Iran, that they could act with impunity.
“This is a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah,” AIPAC said in its statement, referring to the Lebanese militia group the U.S. characterizes as a terrorist organization. “Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”
U.S. organizations that support the anti-Assad rebels, including the Coalition for a Democratic Syria and the Syrian Support Group, said they are asking their members to urge Congress to back Obama’s plan.
“We’re going to be trying to show that if strikes take a particular form, it would be helpful to the opposition and could back Assad into a corner,” said Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, which has an office in Washington.
The Syrian Institute for Progress, a nonprofit group founded last year in California, bought a half-page advertisement in yesterday’s Washington Post. A photograph in the ad shows the bodies of Syrian children who presumably died in the gas attack and says in part, “We share President Obama’s outrage over the chemical attacks in Syria. America’s credibility and national interests are at stake.”
Syrian groups supportive of the rebels are communicating with lawmakers on the issue.
“We’re getting calls from members and their staffs asking for help,” said Mohammed Ghanem, director of government relations at the Syrian American Council, a founding member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, which has an office near the White House and another on Capitol Hill. “We’re working all day and into the night now.”
The coalition’s main objective, he said, is to convince Americans that “it’s in the best interest of the U.S., not just Syria, that the use of chemical weapons not go unchallenged.”
That pro-intervention message is bumping up against an American public largely opposed to taking action in Syria. A Pew Research poll released yesterday that was conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 1 showed 48 percent opposed, while 29 percent favored air strikes in Syria.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said a half-dozen lawmakers of both parties have called him to ask his opinions about Syria -- compared with no one prior to the start of the Iraq war in 2003. He said he has received calls from members of both parties, “enough that makes me say some folks are concerned about this.”
Zogby opposed the Iraq war and opposes military action against Syria.
“I’m not sure what the end goal is,” he said.
Noting that Secretary of State John Kerry, a leader in building support for military action, “says that ultimately there has to be a negotiated settlement” in Syria, Zogby added, “I don’t see how this contributes to a negotiated settlement.”
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday on Obama’s request that featured Kerry was interrupted by antiwar protesters, including several from the group Code Pink, a women’s peace group founded just before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Co-founder Medea Benjamin, wearing a pink shirt and clutching pink signs, was dragged from the hearing while shouting, “Nobody wants this war,” as Kerry concluded his opening remarks.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said Russians have been lobbying against intervention.
“I myself met with the Russian ambassador several times on this matter, and I knew right away, a long time ago, they were going to do nothing to help us,” Boxer said during the Senate hearing.
Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, is trying to harness public opposition to Obama’s request through a website his campaign created, dontattacksyria.com. He said 25,000 people in 48 hours signed a petition against military intervention.
“We needed a way to call the attention of open-minded House members,” he said in an interview.
Today, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee released a memo to Democratic lawmakers saying, “Your progressive base stands firmly against bombing Syria.” The political committee, which said it raised more than $2.7 million from 250,000 small donors for the 2012 elections, said in a statement that lawmakers could expect “thousands” of calls from progressives before they vote on Syria.
Lawmakers said they’re already hearing from Americans who oppose intervention. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and an Obama ally on Syria who led yesterday’s hearing, said that at a soccer tournament he attended over the Labor Day weekend, mothers told him they are devastated by images of Syrians suffering under Assad. Yet, he said, they had a question about prospective strikes: “Why us?”