“We write to express our deepening concern for the situation in Syria,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote to the Obama administration. “The people of Syria deserve to know that the people of the United States understand their plight.”
That was in October 2011.
Nearly four years, more than 200,000 Syrian deaths, some 9 million Syrian refugees, and several red lines later, the avowed anti-war Democrat says more aggressive action is required: carving out safe zones in the war-torn country, by force if necessary.
“I don’t believe that committing combat forces to Syria is the right approach,” Durbin said in an interview with Defense One last week. “I do believe this is the humanitarian challenge of our time … the United States should join an international security force to protect these safe zones.”
Earlier this month, Durbin asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Ash Carter about the feasibility of establishing the zones when they testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Durbin is the ranking member of the powerful subcommittee, which controls the Pentagon’s purse strings.
“It’s practical militarily, but it would be a significant policy decision to do so,” Dempsey said.
Carter added, “We would need to fight to create such a space, and then fight to keep such a space.”
Durbin acknowledged that enforcing such zones “could be a dangerous assignment,” but said, “I’m not asking that they be part of efforts to take over territory or to be in a combat role, but rather in a security role to protect these sections.”
The Pentagon readily admits the Islamic State cannot be defeated without addressing the glaring Syria question, but it has adopted an “Iraq first” strategy toward the terrorist group, focusing U.S. airpower in a country where the government requested it. But after the fall of Ramadi last weekend, more lawmakers are renewing calls for deeper U.S. military involvement, including embedding American troops with Iraqi forces to call in airstrikes.
This belief in the necessity of a greater role for the U.S. military has drawn some of the GOP’s staunchest hawks — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.— to make an unlikely alliance with Durbin and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in calling for safe zones. Obama’s critics like to take occasional digs at the administration’s current Syria strategy — a $500 million program to train and equip 15,000 opposition fighters over three years, begun this month. But their relative silence is a tacit acknowledgement that Syria is much more complicated than Iraq. Durbin is one of the few in Washington actively pushing the issue.
“What I’m looking for is this,” Durbin said. “If we can take the city of Aleppo, for example, and say, ‘This is going to be a safe zone,’ so that displaced people can come to the city and feel safe and don’t have to leave Syria, or medical facilities can be put in place to treat people, children and others, who have been harmed, and then say, ‘We’re gonna protect this — if anyone fires on this zone, we’ll fire back. We’re gonna protect this zone and keep it free of combat with this international force.’ I don’t see any other way to do this.”
Durbin envisions that international force would be created through the U.N. But he conceded that “it may be wishful thinking to believe that Russia would let us take something through the Security Council.” The U.S. would gather key allies for the force, such as Turkey, whose foreign minister said Monday that the two countries have agreed “in principle” to provide air cover to the rebels being trained, once they enter Syria. Durbin said Turkey’s ambassador also recently told him they are ready to sit down and start talks about humanitarian safe zones.
Durbin’s plan doesn’t directly address the biggest criticism levied at Obama’s train-and-equip mission: What about Syrian President Bashar al Assad? “That’s the most important question and the most difficult,” the senator said. “I do not quarrel with the premise that Assad should not be the leader of Syria. How we transition him out of leadership is key to resolving this political dilemma … I think we’re at a standstill at this point.”
In 2013, Durbin went with the 10-7 majority when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorized President Obama to use force in Syria after Assad crossed his “red line” on chemical weapons. But he drew a distinction with his 2002 vote against the invasion of Iraq — which he calls “the most important vote I’ve ever taken” — by arguing that the vote only authorized limited airstrikes, not boots on the ground. The president later backed off.
Now, Durbin said, “The report card is mixed.” He noted that the coalition has made progress in northern Syria against both the Islamic State and Assad, but has lost ground elsewhere. “I have this hope that if we move toward safe zones and start demilitarizing some parts of Syria, it might be a step toward a political dialogue,” he said.
But the president’s Republican opponents, who are finding traction with the claim that Obama doesn’t have a strategy, are pushing for more militarization in the region, not less. The Democrats haven’t answered with a unified voice. And the expected incoming leader of the Senate Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.— a longtime Durbin rival who recently leapfrogged him to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. — is decidedly more hawkish than the Illinois Democrat.
First elected in 1996, Durbin was most recently re-elected in the midterm elections that cost Democrats eight Senate seats and the majority. Since 2005, he has served as his party’s Senate whip. He gave up his Foreign Relations post after the Democrats lost the majority so others could stay, but he currently sits on the Rules, Judiciary and Appropriations committees and is actively involved on a number of foreign policy fronts — this week he’s in Ukraine.
“I believe we’re in year 36 or 37 of a Middle Eastern war that may go on for a hundred years,” Durbin said. “We have paid a heavy, heavy price for our belief that our fantastic American military could prevail anywhere in the world … I think those who are quick to call for American troops and our great American military should step back and reflect on what we’ve learned since the initial invasion of Iraq.”
The battle between the parties for the mantle of “strong on defense” is currently playing out in the consideration of the annual defense authorization bill, or NDAA. Democrats and the White House are threatening to block the bill over Republicans’ design to use the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations funds to get around budget caps and boost defense spending.
Durbin said the appropriations committee minority will offer an alternative that would move the OCO funds into the base budget and lift the caps, anticipating “high-level budget negotiation in the fall.”
“We all understand how OCO funds were conceived as necessary for paying for war but they are now being used as wild cards in the budget process and many of us believe that is a budget gimmick that needs to be honorably retired,” he said.
Durbin’s position in the leadership is reportedly in the air with the approach of a 2016 election in which the Republicans must defend 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10 (including Schumer’s). He said he wants to remain minority whip in part to prevent even more recent history from repeating itself. Durbin was one of 23 senators to vote against the Iraq invasion.
“I don’t say this with any great satisfaction,” he said. “I think the president is trying to stabilize a very difficult part of the world in light of lessons we’ve learned, and yes, I want to be part of that conversation when it comes to the Senate Democratic caucus.”