Calculating the odds: will Obama lose the Syria vote?

By Simon Barrow
September 9, 2013

A massive political shake-up will be forthcoming if US President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry fail in their attempt to persuade Congress to back a punitive military strike on Syria – despite launching an avalanche of propaganda over the past few days.

This weekend, the New York Times reported: "[A]fter a frenetic week of wall-to-wall intelligence briefings, dozens of phone calls and hours of hearings with senior members of Mr Obama’s war council, more and more lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are lining up to vote against the president."

Congress members have been returning to postbags stuffed with hundreds of letters from their voters opposing missile strikes, say aides.

A Washington Post survey also claims that 224 of the current 433 members of the House were either "no" or "leaning no" on military action as of 6 September, while 184 were undecided and just 25 were backing a strike. It said that 27 of the 100 senators were "no" or "leaning no", while 50 were undecided and 23 supportive of military action.

A poll carried out by ABC and the BBC on 6 September revealed that over 230 of the 433 members of the House of Representatives are either opposed to, or likely to oppose, strikes.

"In the House, the number of rank-and-file members who have declared that they will oppose or are leaning against military action is approaching 218, the point of no return for the White House. Getting them to reverse their positions will be extremely difficult," according to the New York Times on the same day.

The newspaper also reports that "the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has plans to swarm Capitol Hill ... with 250 lobbyists to urge members of Congress to support strikes."

That initiative began on Sunday 8 September. It has focused on anti-intervention and anti-Obama Republicans, seeking to persuade them that Syria is a surrogate of Hezbollah and Iran, who are planning a pre-emtive strike on Israel.

At the same time, the the Senate Intelligence Committee has posted 13 videos on the internet that “claim to show victims of a chemical or poison-gas attack”, according to the committee’s website.

But there is no explanation on the site as to how an attack will degrade chemical weapons sites without further endangering civilians, no response on German intelligence contradicting some key US claims, no indications about the involvement of Mossad, no comment about regional repercussions, and no analysis of the different assessments of UK and French intelligence.

The propaganda war wil become particularly intense this week. President Obama will be interviewed on six major television networks today (9 September) and will make a statement from the White House tomorrow as Congress begins to debate the issues. The first (procedural) vote in Senate on Mr Obama's resolution could take place on Wednesday 11 September - the iconic 9/11, which is also being used to challenge waverers.

If the Senate votes 'yes', the debate and vote will likely move to the House of Representatives next week, while the waiting continues for the UN inspectors report into the incidents in Damascus in August.

President Obama was asked three times at the G20 summit in St Petersburg if he would go ahead and bomb anyway if Congress voted no. He declined to say, other than to indicate that “I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism.”

If the President loses in Congress and goes ahead with strikes anyway, his domestic constitutional position will be fatally weakened. But winning very narrowly through bullying and bribery will be not much better, and could even be regarded as worse. As one commenter in the New Yorker magazine put it: "The question is: what will it cost the American people for Obama to buy the votes he needs to win? Every negotiation for a Republican vote trades something we needed for something we didn't."

Could the Russian move to get Syria to agree to some measures of international control, inspection and disarmament offer the US president a way out? It is too early to tell.

Meanwhile, as the military-political posturing goes on, the Syrian people continue to suffer and there is lack of action in relation to the International Criminal Court, regional negotiations, a Geneva 2 style summit, demilitarisation, and other measures to pursue justice without risking even more victims and the consequences of throwing matches into a regional powder keg.

* More on Syria from Ekklesia:

(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow

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