As the federal government determines whether it will punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its people, California Congress members will have tough decisions to make in the coming weeks.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime reportedly used sarin gas against its own people on Aug. 21, killing approximately 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. Assad has reportedly denied the allegations.
The country has been embroiled in civil war since the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East began in late 2010 or early 2011. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the “very peaceful” protests in Syria — mainly spurred by a lack of economic opportunities and citizens having no say in governance — turned violent when Assad responded with military force.
“It just went from bad to worse,” he said. Instead of opening dialogue, the military has escalated its response from guns and ammo to rockets and chemical weapons, Schiff said.
He said the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people is now “overwhelming.” While Schiff has “great skepticism” of such information following the “tremendous failures” related to the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons program, the evidence has been presented by a broad variety of sources, including respected non-governmental organizations, aerial surveillance and tissue samples, he said.
“To ignore it really means turning a blind eye to what’s going on,” Schiff said. “I think we’ve reached that point.”
Satisfied that the evidence is solid, the congressman, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the only question now is how the international community holds Assad accountable.
He said the current draft proposed by Obama’s administration is “way too broad,” as it would authorize anything from limited cruise missile strikes to the creation of a no-fly zone to “boots on the ground.”
“I don’t think that could fly in the House of Representatives so that’s going to have to be considerably narrowed,” Schiff said. “The senate has already taken steps in that direction.”
Although Americans are “rightfully leery” to give too broad an authority following Iraq and Afghanistan, the congressman said its very important that the international community enforce military “norms.”
“This is an international norm against chemical weapons that we are trying to enforce, and I feel like that should be an international effort,” he said, stressing that the U.S. should not be the only country to impose those norms on Syria. However, the U.S. has a “long way to go” to garner more support.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly warned the U.S. to not strike Syria before coming before the United Nations Security Council. However, Schiff said Russia, which has a base in Syria and has been protecting the Syrian government, has vetoed any attempt to hold Assad accountable.
“The UN Security Council is not likely to approve any course of action no matter how flagrant the evidence,” he added.
Schiff said the Aug. 21 incident is not the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons — albeit the most widespread use. He said the cost of inaction is “very high.”
“There aren’t any good options here,” Schiff said. “The consequences are never clearly foreseeable, so there’s good reason for concern whether we sit idle or whether we act.”
If the use of chemical weapons becomes the norm, it could threaten the national security of the U.S. and its allies, such as Israel, he said.
Schiff said he does not know when Congress will vote to authorize the use of force, though he anticipates that the vote will occur next week.
The U.S. Senate will also vote on the bill, and its Foreign Affairs Committee was slated to review it on Wednesday. He said he is weighing the decision “very carefully” and has appreciated the feedback he’s received from constituents.
“These are the most difficult and most important decisions you make as a member of Congress,” Schiff said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who could not be reached for comment before deadline, was among a group of legislators who wrote a letter to Obama, urging the president to seek an affirmative decision from Congress prior to any U.S. military engagement. However, the letter did not specify how the legislators felt about the proposed military action.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) also could not be reached before deadline, but she held a telephone town hall with constituents about the potential U.S. engagement in Syria on Wednesday night.
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