Tennessee’s Bob Corker, the ranking Republican senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, got some face time on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday. Corker and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, talked about the prospects of peace in Syria — in particular, whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to give up his chemical weapons as a result of international diplomacy efforts led by Russian President Vladamir Putin.
Both Corker and Levin were doubtful, and both said U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian government must remain an option under consideration.
“I think all of us have wanted a diplomatic solution, and know that’s the only way to solve this,” said Corker. “On the other hand, I think all of us have to approach this with a healthy and strong degree of skepticism.”
“There’s no question that Russia has retained its ability to veto under (as a member of the U.N. Security Council). So the threat of force from a multilateral standpoint is still very much in Russian hands,” Corker continued.
Sen. Levin added: “Russia can force Assad to do what Russia wants Assad to do. It is the weapons supplier for Assad. It has been deeply involved in one of the very few countries that have supported Assad. Putin made an outrageous statement the other day, trying to cover up Russia’s support for Assad weapons systems by saying all the evidence points to the use of chemicals, that they were used by opposition rather than by Assad. As a matter of fact, that is a lie. All the evidence points to Assad using it. Russia has tried their very hardest — their really number one or number two goal is to force us to give up the option of using force if Assad does not comply. Russia has failed in that goal. We retain the option of using force if there’s not full compliance.”
Despite the fact that Obama administration’s initial push for congressional authorization to attack Syria made no mention of a diplomatic solution, Corker seemed to attribute the U.S. threat of military action in Syria as the reason Russia has moved of late toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
“We passed [military authorization] on a bipartisan basis [out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee], the authorization for the use of force, and it was done to get us to a diplomatic place. I think all of us have wanted a diplomatic solution, and know that’s the only way to solve this,” said the former Chattanooga mayor.
According to the White House timeline, “On September 1, President Obama laid out the case for a targeted military action against Syrian regime targets as a result of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons that killed over one thousand people–including hundreds of children.” President Obama met with Congressional leaders (including Senator Corker) on September 3 to discuss a plan for military action. Obama again made the case for military action against Assad on Sept. 7 during his weekly address.
During the Face the Nation interview, Corker reiterated his desire to see the United States aid the Syrian rebels militarily.
“I was just in the region a few weeks ago and could not have been more dismayed at our lack of support for the opposition,” said Corker. “And we certainly have not done what we need to do. It’s hurt our — it has hurt our credibility, certainly, on the ground. I think the opposition views this [diplomatic approach] as a setback. But the way to counter that, I think, is to much more strongly equip and train the opposition there on the ground.”
Corker is the only member of the Tennessee congressional delegation to indicate he fully supports the Obama administration unilaterally involving the United States in the Syrian civil war.
Last week Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he’d oppose America attacking Syria because he fears there’s “too much uncertainty about what comes next.”
“I see too much risk that the strike will do more harm than good by setting off a chain of consequences that could involve American fighting men and women in another long-term Middle East conflict,” said Alexander. “There should be other ways, more appropriate to America’s vital national security interests, to discourage and show our disgust with the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own people.”
Tension over the what role, if any, the United States should take in the Syrian conflict spilled over into state-level Tennessee politics last week.
On Sept. 11, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, evoked denunciations from Tennessee Democrats when he tweeted, “As the President attempts to ally w/ Al-Qaeda in Syria’s civil war, we must always remember who attacked us on our soil 12 years ago.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, issued statements accusing Ramsey’s office of tainting the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with, in Herron’s words, “an outrageous, dishonest, misleading, incendiary, unpatriotic and dangerous attack on our nation’s president and on Republican leaders like Senators Corker and McCain and House Speaker Boehner and even the Military Leaders working with them.”
Added Fitzhugh: “It is insulting to our President, to Senator Corker who shares the President’s position, to all Americans no matter their position on Syria and to the memory of those we’ve lost. Lt. Governor Ramsey is either grossly misinformed or he has decided to be a partisan, instead of a patriot. He should apologize immediately.”
Ramsey issued a statement in response the next day in which he expanded on his contention that violent anti-American sentiment is prevalent among the insurgent opposition to Assad.
“The Syrian rebels connections to Al-Qaeda are well-established and well-known,” Ramsey declared. “I am proud to stand with leaders like Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul against coming to the aid of our enemies, enemies who continue to hate our country from afar as they kill Christians in their own country.”
Matthew Hurtt contributed to this report.