The Obama administration will brief lawmakers on Syria in an unclassified teleconference call at 6pm Thursday.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James A. Winnefeld Jr. are expected to be on the call, Hill sources said.
The briefing was originally going to be classified which would have required members not in Washington to travel to a federal building with a secure line.
But several lawmakers were apparently traveling and did not think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources say, and the briefing was changed to unclassified to accommodate them. Among those who didn’t think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources said, were Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was reportedly fundraising in North Dakota and Ohio Wednesday. (A spokesman for Cantor did not immediately respond to a query.) House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was traveling in Montana, but an aide said it was not the case that he could not get to a secure line for the Syria call. “Some other members may have had such an issue but it was not one for the speaker,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, said by email Thursday.
Boehner sent President Obama a detailed letter (.pdf) Wednesday affirming the president's prerogative to act against Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, but seeking more clarification on the U.S. military strategy and legal justification for Syria action.
“It is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner wrote Obama. “I respectfully request that you, as our country’s commander-in-chief, personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.
The Obama administration- Congressional consultations on Syria are, however, so far positively tame compared to what ally British Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced from British parliament, still haunted by the Ira war. The UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a unanimous assessment Thursday that said, in short, no one else could have conducted the Syrian chemical weapons attack except Syrian regime forces, and that they assessed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons 14 times previously in the conflict on a small scale before the much larger Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta that killed over 300 people. Despite the assessments, British public opinion is wary of getting involved, and Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Cameron at a parliament debate Thursday to delay any action on Syria until further verification from the United Nations chemical weapons inspections team and another UN Security Council debate.
Cameron has agreed not to act before UN inspectors return from Syria on Saturday and report back to the UN Security Council some time next week. The British parliament would then in theory vote on whether to authorize the UK to act.
It’s not clear how long Obama will wait for him, though, especially as the vote looks increasingly unlikely to pass, US and British sources said.
Obama, meantime, is supposed to leave next Thursday to attend the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. The meeting could be quite awkward, to say the least, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has vehemently railed against possible US-led action in Syria, which may now come in the days immediately preceding his G20 hosting duties including guests of several nations supporting the action (France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, among them.)
Russian warships were, meantime, reported to be moving towards the Mediterranean on Thursday, where the US has stationed four warships and said Thursday it was sending a fifth.
The White House said Thursday they would release an intelligence assessment on Syria chemical weapons use by the end of the week.
Update: Britain's House of Commons early Friday voted narrowly to reject the British government's motion to support possible action on Syria. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said he accepts the decision and the UK will not be joining in any intervention on Syria. The United States said it would move forward, and France reaffirmed Friday that it will participate.
(Photo by Pete Souza, White House Photo.)