My View on the Syrian Civil War
By Senator Susan Collins
The decision on whether or not to authorize the President to use the military might of our great country against another nation is the most significant vote that a Senator can cast. The Constitution vests this responsibility in Congress, a duty that rests heavily on the shoulders of each and every Member.
We are engaged in a serious debate about what the appropriate response should be to the horrific use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Assad to kill his own people on August 21st. This was not the first use of chemical weapons by Assad. He launched several smaller-scale attacks murdering his citizens, and many, if not all, occurred after our President drew his “red line” a year ago. It was not until the large-scale attack on August 21st, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,400 people, that President Obama decided that a military strike against Syria was warranted.
As a senior member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, I have participated in numerous discussions with the President, Vice President, and experts in and out of government. Many Mainers have also provided me with their valuable insights.
While diplomatic negotiations continue between the United States, Russia, Syria, and our allies, I have decided that I cannot support the authorization for the use of military force in Syria as passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here are my reasons.
One of the criteria for the use of military force is whether or not the adversary poses a direct, imminent threat to America. More than once, President Obama has stated that Syria’s chemical weapons do not pose such a threat. Instead, the President justifies the attack as a response to a violation of international norms, despite the fact that we currently lack international partners to enforce the convention on chemical weapons through military means.
Although the term “limited air strikes” sounds less threatening, they constitute an act of war. If bombs were dropped from the air or cruise missiles were launched into a city in the United States, we would certainly consider that to be an act of war.
American military strikes risk entangling us into the middle of a protracted and dangerous civil war. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the U.S. military “cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.” This conflict could escalate to the point where we are perceived to be -- or actually are -- involved in a civil war or a proxy war with Hezbollah or Iran. My concern is that reprisals, followed by subsequent retaliations, followed by even further reprisals, could lead to an escalation of violence that was never intended by the President but may well be the result of the first strike.
In addition to my concerns about being dragged into the Syrian civil war, I question whether the proposed military response would be more effective in achieving the goal of eliminating Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons than a diplomatic approach. No military or intelligence official I have spoken with believes that the contemplated strike will eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability. General Dempsey wrote to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin that even if an explicit military mission to secure Syria’s chemical weapons were undertaken, it would result in the control of “some, but not all” chemical weapons in Syria, and that is not what is being discussed.
I also doubt that limited air strikes will be perceived as narrowly as the President would like them to be. While Administration officials have gone out of their way to state that the military strikes are only to deter and degrade Assad’s chemical weapons use and are not intended to pick sides in the civil war, the text of the resolution and the Administration’s statements are at odds with its representations.
The resolution states that it is the policy of the United States to “change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.” No one could ever consider the Assad dictatorship to be a “democratic government.” Furthermore, on September 3, Secretary of State John Kerry testified that degrading Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons “deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact.”
Assad is a brutal, ruthless dictator who is supported by thousands of Hezbollah terrorist fighters. The opposition, however, is not pure. It has been infiltrated by not one but two affiliates of al Qaeda as well as criminal gangs. Caught in the middle are millions of Syrians who simply want to lead peaceful lives. All of us want to see a peaceful Syria no longer led by Assad nor controlled by the radical Islamist extremists that are part of his opposition, but is military action that could get us involved in Syria’s civil war the right answer?
One of the arguments advanced by proponents of the AUMF resolution is that America’s credibility is on the line. This is a legitimate concern. I would maintain, however, that the credibility of the United States is greater than one statement by the President, even in his important capacity as Commander-in-Chief.
The credibility of the United States is backed by a military that is the most advanced and capable in the world. The strength of our military sends the clear message that the United States is capable of exerting overwhelming force whenever we decide it is necessary to do so.
I also reject the notion that the United States has only the two choices of undertaking an act of war or doing nothing in our response to President Assad’s attack on his citizens. The Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons in the custody of the international community before they would ultimately be destroyed gives me cautious optimism. I am not naïve about “trusting” the Russians, but this option may well be in Russia’s own interests and it would once and for all prevent Assad or anyone else in Syria from using those weapons.
A diplomatic solution will not be easy, but it is preferable to a military strike with its known dangers and unknown consequences.
Watch Senator Collins' floor speech about Syria by clicking the image below or by clicking here.