WASHINGTON – Concern appeared to be growing Thursday in Congress about the possibility of retaliating against Syria for its use of chemical weapons – and no one was more concerned than the two House members who represent the Buffalo metro area.
With increasing numbers of lawmakers insisting that President Obama go to Congress for authorization of any military strike, both Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, voiced deep skepticism about a possible U.S. missile attack against Syria.
“We can’t afford it. Americans are sick and tired of foreign wars,” said Higgins, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, adding: “This could trigger a larger conflict from which the United States could have a hard time extracting itself.”
Collins, who usually stands diametrically opposed to Higgins on most national issues, this time spoke in terms strikingly similar to those of his Democratic colleague.
“The American public does not want another war,” said Collins, who just returned from a congressional trip to Israel. “We don’t want to do something where the ramifications could come back at us.”
Both Higgins and Collins said they feared U.S. intervention could spur a wider war in the Middle East, given that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has the backing of Iran.
“We don’t want to have a situation where Iran is lobbing missiles at Israel,” Collins said.
In contrast, New York’s two senators voiced varying degrees of support for a possible missile strike, but that support stood amid growing unease about the possible attack, especially in the House.
A day after Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., wrote a letter to Obama calling for congressional approval before any such strike, the number of lawmakers backing the letter swelled from 116 to 193.
“I’m grateful and encouraged by the strong, bipartisan support this letter has received,” said Rigell even before support for the letter started growing.
“It’s a clear indication that this issue is not personal to the president, but rather represents common ground in Congress and a deep respect for the Constitution.”
Collins signed the letter, as did Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, and Higgins agreed that Congress needs to sign off on any military action in Syria.
“This is a very dangerous and complex situation,” Reed said in a statement. “There are no good options for the United States due largely to the failure to have a consistent policy regarding engagement in the Middle East over the last several years.”
The skepticism in Congress comes as Obama considers whether, and how, to punish Assad, whose regime is believed to be responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people Aug. 21 near Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The White House held an unclassified conference call with lawmakers early Thursday evening to discuss the situation, and afterwards, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement that made him sound like a reluctant warrior.
“Assad is a brutal dictator, and the deaths of so many from chemical weapons is appalling,” he said. “A limited action to knock out his capability of delivering chemical weapons in the future could be appropriate, but we have to be very careful not to let our involvement escalate. America needs to focus on domestic issues such as jobs and the middle class.”
Earlier in the day, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sounded far less reluctant than Schumer about a possible attack on Syria.
“My heart broke when I saw the horrible images of innocent women and children slaughtered by chemical weapons,” she said.
“This is a heinous and despicable act that cannot be ignored. I expect that the administration will work with an international coalition to act with a limited, tactical response to make it clear to Bashar al-Assad that this behavior is unacceptable.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., agreed. “I would support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence” that Assad had used chemical weapons, Corker said after the White House call.
But the conference call appeared to do little to sway the skeptics in the House.
“I think the president has not yet closed the deal,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, according to NBC News.
Reed, in a statement issued before the White House conference call, expressed similar sentiments.
“I am waiting for the White House to give Congress a clear definition of the objectives and parameters of our potential involvement,” he said.
In discussing his opposition to an intervention, Higgins cited the lessons of history.
“American military intervention cannot solve problems in the Middle East and South Asia.” he said.
“It’s been proven in Iraq. Iraq is as violent today as it was the day we went in there. And Afghanistan is a basket case.”
Collins – like Higgins – suggested the rebel forces in Syria may be no friendlier to the United States than Assad is.
“This is a very complicated issue,” Collins said. “It’s not as simple as just the humanitarian side.”