Republican lawmakers questioned whether a U.S. agreement with Russia will succeed in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons as President Barack Obama said the plan will reduce the chances of another poison gas attack.
Republicans accused the administration of ceding its leverage by backing off a threat of military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the U.S.-Russia deal will offer openings for American enemies in the region to increase their influence.
“Not only Russia is going to take advantage of this,” Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “So is Hezbollah and so is Iran.” The Hezbollah militia, allied with Shiite Muslim Iran, has been supporting Assad in Syria’s civil war and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.
The accord, negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, sets a framework for finding, securing and destroying Assad’s stocks of poison gas. The deal calls for early signs of progress, giving Assad a week to submit an inventory of his toxic weapons, and calls for initial inspections in Syria by November.
The agreement quelled the prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. The U.S. says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed more than 1,400 people in the attack.
“My entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure what happened Aug. 21 does not happen again,” Democrat Obama said in a Sept. 13 interview aired yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “We have the possibility of making sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
The agreement gives Obama a diplomatic achievement without a shot being fired by U.S. armed forces. While the deal still faces political and practical hurdles, it could also wind down a drama that has put the president at odds with most of the U.S. public and many of his supporters.
That would let the administration shift its focus to domestic priorities, including a budget agreement, an increase in the debt ceiling and the nomination of a Federal Reserve chairman.
“The most important political effect of the agreement is to knock the issue down a few pegs on the political agenda,” said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California.
Republicans have criticized the administration’s response to the Syrian gas attack, with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying “the administration’s handling of this crisis has hurt U.S. credibility.”
Obama first threatened a military strike and then turned to Congress for authorization. As the administration was pressing lawmakers, Russia seized on Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhanded comment that Syria could avert a strike by giving up its chemical weapons.
Obama then agreed to explore the Russian proposal and asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote.
“I’m less concerned about style points,” Obama said in the “This Week” interview. “I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.”
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the agreement is a “loser” for the U.S.
“It gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven’t had since 1970,” McCain said. “We are now depending on the good will of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that is a very, very big gamble.”
The agreement calls for a UN Security Council resolution compelling Assad’s regime to adhere to its terms. Rogers said the administration had sacrificed its leverage by accepting that the resolution won’t authorize force should Assad fail to comply. Rogers said the agreement will undermine efforts to oust Assad.
“We’ve taken away a credible military threat,” Rogers said. “If we wanted a transition with Assad, we’ve just fired our last round.”
Rogers called the accord a “Russian plan for Russian interests.” Russia supports the Assad regime.
Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. can still use military force if Assad doesn’t comply with the agreement. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Levin said Russia’s “No. 1 or No. 2 goal” was for the U.S. to relinquish the military option.
“Russia has failed in that goal,” said Levin, a Democrat from Michigan. “We retained the option of using force if there’s not full compliance.”
Verifying compliance will be especially difficult with Syria in the middle of a civil war, said Richard Butler, the former chief weapons inspector for the UN.
“Inspectors would have to be able to go there. That implies protection of them,” Butler said on CNN’S “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program. “That could be incredibly difficult in the present circumstances in Syria.”