DENVER – The reaction from many lawmakers to Thursday night’s U.S. attack on a Syrian air base that followed a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens earlier this week stands in stark contrast to their reactions when President Obama called for similar military actions in 2013.
Thousands of Syrians were hit with chemical weapons in a strike purportedly ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Aug. 21, 2013.
As the Obama administration wringed its hands over how to respond to the attack, which was a violation of the Geneva Convention and a 1993 accord that ban the use of chemical weapons, most members of Congress also fretted over how the U.S. government might respond.
Some called for diplomatic solutions, while others called for military strikes or full-on intervention.
Most Republicans and many Democrats on The Hill wanted Obama to seek congressional approval before any military force was used.
Some of Colorado's members of Congress were among them, but they are far from the only ones who have changed their minds.
Gardner, Tipton, Coffman, Lamborn all wanted congressional approval before Obama strike
On Aug. 28 of that year, then-Rep. Cory Gardner, Rep. Scott Tipton, and Rep. Mike Coffman signed on to a House letter to Obama that urged the president to “consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria.”
“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” the letter said.
It cited a 2011 memo that was attached to oncoming U.S. airstrikes in Libya in which the Office of Legal Counsel said congressional approval was not required in that strike because the military wasn’t engaged in “hostilities” and the scope of the attack was “limited.”
The letter the three Colorado Reps. signed onto said they viewed the bypass of Congress when ordering military strikes as “unconstitutional.”
All three said at the time that though the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, there was not an “imminent threat” to the U.S. at that time, and thus, the situation in Syria didn’t meet the criteria.
Coffman tweeted on Aug. 29 of that year, “Pres. Obama must obey Constitution and come to Congress before any military action in Syria,” a day after saying, “Your Colorado delegation agrees, no to war in Syria and yes to transparency from the President.”
Also on Aug. 29 of that year, Coffman issued a statement saying “the president must follow the Constitution and the War Power Act of 1973 and come to the Congress for support before going forward with a military strike of any kind” since the U.S. was not in danger of an “imminent attack.”
The War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours on U.S. military actions. It also forbids the military from participating in actions for longer than 60 days without an extension and agreement from Congress.
But he changed his stance slightly days later, when on Sept. 4, he said he was “undecided” on possible military actions and first wanted to know whether Assad had ordered the chemical attack, whether a strike would deter Assad, and whether any action would “drag the United States into an intractable sectarian civil war in Syria.”
Gardner tweeted on Sept. 4 and 5 of that year that he was “skeptical” of the U.S. getting involved in Syria. On the 4th, he said, “I am not yet convinced of a compelling & vital national interest.”
Obama says he’ll ask Congress for approval in 2013, more reaction from Congress
So most members of Congress were pleased when on Sept. 10 of that year, Obama made a lengthy speech condemning Assad’s actions and saying he would pursue a military strike through Congress.
“The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use,” Obama said.
But he went on to say that he would consult Congress first, as many representatives and senators had sought.
“Even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”
Though Obama said after the initial chemical attack that Assad had crossed a “red line,” he never carried through with taking a proposed action plan to Congress, though the administration did begin air strikes in support of rebel groups about a year later that lasted through the remainder of the Obama presidency.
But the lack of military action came as Syria entered into an agreement with Russia and the U.S. to hand over its chemical weapons and have them destroyed.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., issued a statement Sept. 12 of that year saying, “Nothing I heard from President Obama tonight convinced me that a military strike against Syria is in America’s best interest,” adding that he had “lost confidence in the president’s ability to lead” and that neither classified nor unclassified briefings convinced him he should vote for or against any possible resolution to authorize military actions in Syria – a resolution that never came.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., had originally sought more information on the 2013 attacks, and said upon hearing the news that Syria had agreed to rid itself of chemical weapons that she was “pleased the focus seems to have shifted toward the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said he was opposed to military action in Syria for a variety of reasons after receiving classified briefings.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said at the time he welcomed Obama’s speech ahead of it.
“It’s important for Congress to assess this information and discuss what actions are appropriate to deter this kind of massacre in the future,” he said. “As the president suggested, any action must be targeted and limited in scope.”
Current Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., was not a House member at the time.
What changed between 2013 and 2017?
Thursday night, the Trump administration ordered warships to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the air base the Syrian planes that are accused of dropping the chemical weapons came from.
Some members of Congress, including Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, said that Trump was out of line by not coming to Congress first and violated the Constitution. But most praised Trump's decision.
But Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said that the airstrikes did not amount to any change in Syria policy and thus did not require Congressional approval because the strikes were not an act of war.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status,” Tillerson said.
The Trump administration is utilizing the same rules the Obama administration did in authorizing airstrikes against al-Qaeda and ISIS in various nations that the U.S. had not declared war against.
But the complex situation in Syria, where there are several rebel groups fighting ISIS, as well as Assad’s regime. There are also foreign fighters from Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Kurdish regions, and Russia has both aligned itself with the U.S. and given military support to Assad.
U.S. officials said Thursday night that Russia was warned of the attack beforehand and was able to evacuate some of its troops before the strikes.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the strike as an "act of aggression."
Colorado’s members of Congress explain their latest reactions
Gardner pointed to the addition of Russian and Iranian fighters, and the new chemical weapons attack, as reasons he now supports the use of military action without congressional approval.
“I hope our partners in freedom and dignity will see this U.S. leadership as the first act of a global partnership to end this chapter of depravity,” Gardner said. “The use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law and the administration is well justified taking this long-overdue action tonight against a designated state sponsor of terrorism.”
Gardner had been on his way to changing his mind on the use of force against Syria for several years after becoming a senator in 2014.
“The long-suffering Syrian people would certainly be surprised to learn that we are ‘not seeking regime change in Syria’, as Secretary Kerry stated. The United States has invested billions of dollars to stop Assad’s reign of terror and to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people,” Gardner said at the time. “Secretary Kerry is sending a signal that, despite Assad gassing and barrel-bombing his own people, the Obama Administration is giving up seeing him removed from power.”
In 2016, he said that “groups funded by Iran have killed innocents in Syria. They’ve killed Israelis. They’ve killed Americans.”
And on Feb. 24 of this year, Gardner signed onto a letter sent to Tillerson calling for Assad to be held accountable for “war crimes” in Syria.
In a conversation with Denver7 Friday as he headed into the classified Senate briefing from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the actions in Syria, Gardner continued to blame the Obama administration for allowing Assad the leeway to continue to store chemical weapons.
He did say that the administration “had authority to act last night.”
“We’ve seen a number of things change over the past four years,” Gardner said, noting that Russia had made an increased presence in the Middle East and Assad had continued to violate international law.
But he laid much of the blame on the Obama administration, because Kerry said in 2014 that regarding Syrian chemical weapons, that “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” after Syria agreed a year earlier to hand over and have its chemical weapon stockpiles destroyed, as was part of the agreement involving Russia and the U.S.
“The fact is Russia and the Obama administration said that the gas had been removed from Syria,” Gardner told Denver7. “We now know that not to be true.”
“ISIS continues to metastasize in Syria, threatening our men and women on the ground. Four years later, we have to do something,” he said.
He said that a “coalition of nations” and “consultation with Congress” should be sought for future military actions in Syria, and that he would know more about what would happen going forward after the 1 p.m. ET meeting with Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Tipton told Denver7 Friday that he supported the Thursday strike but still would like congressional approval for any future actions, sticking fairly close to his 2013 statements.
“The use of chemical weapons by a government on its people is horrific. I believe that the recent actions of the al-Assad regime called for a response from the United States,” he told Denver7. “However, I remain firm in my position that, given the stakes, any further military action in Syria deserves consideration by Congress first.”
And Coffman offered a more-muted statement Thursday than he did in his past calls for congressional approval – not even mentioning it.
“Tonight’s actions in Syria come after Assad’s horrific actions against his own people,” he said in a statement. “America must show leadership and I’m thankful for what appears to be an effective response by our military.”
Coffman stopped by Denver7 Friday afternoon to elaborate on the airstrikes.
“What’s changed now is the fact that Assad had breached that agreement, Coffman told Denver7 Friday. “What the president did was a very measured, limited response that was tactically-time sensitive to hit the airfield with standoff weapons – Tomahawk weapons – launched from U.S. warships to clearly send a signal to the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons will simply not be tolerated.”
But Coffman says he thinks the government might need to revisit the authorization for use of military force, saying he doesn’t think it “comports necessarily with the situation that we confront today.”
“I think that should the president decide to do anything of a follow-up nature, there’s no question in my view that it should go through the Congress of the United States,” Coffman said.
Coffman, an Iraq war veteran, said that he believes “we always have to be very careful in terms of military intervention,” citing the vacuum created in Iraq that allowed ISIS to take the country over for much of the past several years.
But he said that the president “needed to again send a signal that the U.S. is serious,” and said the Obama administration’s “weakness” invited “aggression” from Russia over the past four years.
“The fact that the Obama administration entered into an agreement with the Assad regime and with the Russians prohibiting the further use of chemical weapons I think, in a way, put the Trump administration in a place where they need to take some action.”
When asked if he thinks the U.S. missed the boat by not striking Syria in 2013, Coffman said “hindsight is always 20/20” but that “perhaps there was a window of opportunity” that has now closed.
Lamborn on Friday praised Trump’s willingness to send a “clear signal of U.S. opposition to crimes against humanity” and also blamed the Obama administration for the latest chemical weapon attack.
Coffman says he and about 140 other members of Congress signed on to a new letter to the president Friday saying that he needs to go through Congress for any further military actions in Syria. Denver7 has requested a copy of the letter once it is finalized.
(Click here to view the text of the new letter, which was still circulating in Congress Friday evening before it is sent to the president's desk.)
“Syrian President Assad continues to act far beyond the norms of civilized leaders,” Lamborn said. “Unlike the previous administration which walked away from similar outrages, President Trump is willing to send a clear signal of U.S. opposition to crimes against humanity. We hope and pray that this display of strength will prevent chemical attacks against innocent civilians in the future.”
Bennet said that Thursday’s strikes were justified but that he believes Congress should be consulted on further actions.
“The chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed innocent civilians, including children, required a response. The Assad regime must be held accountable for these atrocities,” Bennet said. “Assad has no place in the future of Syria. As long as he is in power, the Syrian people will remain trapped in a horrific and dangerous situation.”
“Moving forward,” Bennet continued, “any military action must be conducted in consultation with Congress and considered only as part of an articulated strategy to address the ongoing crisis.”
DeGette on Friday called for more extensive plans should the U.S. get involved in Syria, which would include “relief for refugees,” and said that President Trump and his administration’s next steps should be “marked by level-headedness, compassion and respect for the balance of powers enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”
“Chemical weapons use on anyone, but most especially civilians, is horrific and calls for a response. However, the context for last night’s action is a wider, brutal conflict. The Administration must demonstrate that it has a comprehensive Syria strategy that includes diplomacy and has clear goals,” DeGette said.
“It’s the President’s duty to protect national security, but he must consult with Congress and seek an Authorization for Use of Military Force if he intends to take further military action involving Syria,” she added.
Polis again Friday, as he did in 2013, called for congressional approval for any further military actions in Syria.
“Any act of war requires a formal declaration from Congress, and I strongly urge the President to fulfill his constitutional responsibility by consulting Congress before taking any further military action in Syria.” Polis said. “I also believe the U.S. cannot disregard the continued terror in Syria, and that is why I have called for an increase in the admission of Syrian refugees, and why the President must reconsider his policies that seek to shut down all migration from Syria. Earlier today, I signed on to a resolution to encourage the use of all diplomatic and economic means to compel the Assad regime to transfer power peacefully.”
He is also co-sponsoring a bill that would impose new sanctions on the Assad regime and launch an investigation into possible war crimes.
Requests for further comment has been made to the rest of Colorado’s members of Congress, some of whom have responded saying they would have prepared statements ready Friday afternoon.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Friday said the U.S. “is prepared to do more” in Syria, calling Thursday’s strike a “very measured step.”
“We are prepared to do more,” she said. “But we hope that will not be necessary. It is time for all civilized nations to stop the horrors that are taking place in Syria and demand a political solution.”
President Trump himself tweeted in 2013 that, “The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria – big mistake if he does not!”
He also commented on Obama needing congressional approval for an attack on Syria, or the lack of a need for an attack on Syria, at least three other times.
Syrians in Colorado discuss strike
In many ways, the Clean Cuts Salon on Colorado and Iliff in Denver resembles the United Nations. People from around the world head there for a haircut, including Syrian immigrant Mohammad Allisa.
"I have an uncle there. I have an aunt there.I have a cousin there," he said
His loved ones are living in the war-torn country. The images of the chemical attack are tough to stomach, he says.
"They are not safe. They are not safe,” he said. “Feel so sad. Very sad. And I was crying at home."
"They cannot leave. They cannot go to another place."
"It hurts me, and it hurts my wife, and we are very sad -- believe me,” Allisa said. “We are not focused in business. We are not focused in our job because of what's happened in our country."
But on the day after the American air strikes, Allisa says he applauds the move by the U.S.
"I support that. My family supports that and anybody that believes in human rights, and women's right, and children's rights should support Donald Trump at what he does."
Yet Mohammad knows this is not the end for his war-torn homeland, though he is hoping a regime change comes soon.
"What's happened yesterday is great, but it's not enough. Its' a great move. Now they will know the people are not alone,” he said. “You have to be careful. If you use the chemical weapons, we're going to hit you and you have to come to the table and out of Syria. You have to leave."
Denver7's Marc Stewart contributed to this report.