As lawmakers grapple with whether to support President Obama’s plan to carry out targeted military strikes on Syria, the policy issue is fast becoming a political one in some of the country’s most competitive Senate races.
More than a year out from Election Day, Syria is roiling races in Kentucky, Louisiana and elsewhere, but nowhere more than in Arkansas.
Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor for Pryor's Senate seat, has staked out a notably hawkish stance in advance of a congressional vote.
“For months, we should have been targeting Bashar al-Assad’s air fields,” Cotton recently told the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Cotton said any effective response must include “a sustained attack on the runways” — a strategy he argued would enable the American military to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria like the ones it established over Iraq after the Gulf War and over Libya during an anti-government uprising in 2011.
“Likewise, I think we have to have a sustained campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons systems,” Cotton added.
Cotton’s remarks echoed statements he made earlier this year in support of a no-fly zone in Syria.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham proposed earlier this year that a no-fly zone be established in Syria. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cautioned that such an undertaking could cost as much as $1 billion per month and "may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires w— mortars, artillery, and missiles."
And it would be difficult to predict how long such an operation would last. "When you start one, you can’t ever anticipate when it will end," said one House Republican aide.
Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Rabbit affirmed Tuesday that Cotton has “long supported the use of force in Syria and a regime change,” but said “he’s now focused on what’s before Congress,” referring to the resolution to authorize military action.
Pryor has so far taken a more cautious position than Cotton on potential military action.
“I don’t want to get into another situation like we’ve seen before where we get into one of these things and it’s hard to measure if we’re being successful or not,” Pryor told the Associated Press Monday. “I think the president needs to be very clear on that on the front end and I’m not satisfied in that area yet.”
Pryor has not decided whether he will vote to use force in Syria. He first wants to know what America's interests are in the fight, how long military operations would last and whether U.S. allies will join the operation.
Should Pryor ultimately oppose military action while Cotton backs it, Pryor's campaign is poised to turn the debate into a political issue on the campaign trail.
"If their votes are different, I think this is something we’ll be talking about going forward,” said a source close to Pryor's campaign.
Rabbit, Cotton’s spokeswoman, echoed that assessment.
Meanwhile, some candidates in competitive races appear to be taking the opposite approach and avoiding the issue in earnest.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in Louisiana, said in a statement over the weekend that she would seek more information before forming an opinion, but she was no closer to one Tuesday.
“Using military force in Syria is a serious matter, and the president is correct to seek congressional approval,” Landrieu said Tuesday. “I will carefully examine the facts in the coming days as Congress debates what the appropriate action is.”
Her opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., facing a competitive re-election bid, did not indicate in a statement Tuesday how he would vote.
“While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done – and can be accomplished – in Syria and the region,” McConnell said.