DUNKIRK – For Rep. Tom Reed, the conversations in his district this week mirrored the debates going on in Congress over whether the United States should take military action in Syria. While horrified by the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on civilians, war-weary upstate residents, like many lawmakers, are conflicted over what the response should be.
Unlike many of his colleagues, the Corning Republican has made up his mind. In a series of listening stops Tuesday and Wednesday, Reed informed constituents that he plans to vote “no” next week when the House is expected to consider a resolution on authorizing President Obama to use military force to prevent further use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Dunkirk gadfly Phil Julian questioned from the audience whether lawmakers could even trust the intelligence reports about the use of chemical weapons, in light of the misinformation that preceded the Iraq War.
“How do we know we are being told the truth now?” Julian asked Reed.
Reed, who conducted six of the meetings with voters this week, said the issue of intelligence “has come up quite a bit.”
“There is not doubt in my mind that chemical weapons were used, and I believe that Assad, through his leadership, was responsible,” Reed said.
The question for him, he said, was whether a military response would stop Syrian President Bashar Assad – or make things worse.
“The risk of escalation is legitimate, it’s real, and it’s going to have consequences,” he told the audience of about two dozen people at Dunkirk City Hall. “I just don’t see a long-term plan to deal with the destabilization that could result.”
If a military action was not the right choice, asked one woman who did not give her name, what action should the president take?
“If we do not make some kind of precise, targeted strike, what will happen? Iraq is right there. Iran is right there,” she said. “That will give other countries the opportunity to continue using chemical weapons. I mean, we drew a ‘red line.’ Is there a line, or isn’t there?”
Without addressing the matter of the line, Reed said he feared that U.S. actions leading to “regime change” would be very dangerous.
“If we do this, who do we have left? Who would be in charge of the country?” Reed asked.
He also said he was concerned by the lack of interest by U.S. allies in joining in a military strike.
“If this is an international issue, where is the international response?” Reed asked. “Until we see those international coalitions developing, I do not think we should try to solve this unilaterally.”
He said that, for now, the best course of action for the United States would be to pursue a diplomatic response. Key to this, he said, would be participation by Russia and China, which have previously blocked efforts by the United Nations to sanction Syria for other rights violations during its continuing civil war.
“What I want to work on is to try to get Russia and China to exert pressure on Syria to get these weapons out of Assad’s hands,” Reed said.
Though voter interest has been focused on economic issues for several years, Syria has captured their attention lately, Reed said.
“The phone calls, to my office and to my home, the emails, all the messages from people are overwhelmingly opposed to military engagement,” he said.
Shirley Leyman, of Kennedy, who was representing the Southern Tier Tea Party Patriots, said that echoes the position her group is taking. “Why should we get involved in this civil war at this time? Both sides there are guilty of horrible atrocities. It could escalate to a World War III scenario,” Leyman said. “If we can do humanitarian aid, sure. But to intervene militarily? We think that is wrong.”
At the end of the meeting, Reed asked for a show of hands from the audience on now they would vote on Syria. About half the audience raised their hands to vote no to military action. Others, such as Judy Phillips, of Forestville, were “on the fence.” No one raised a hand for “yes.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, Western New York’s other GOP member of the House, was also “on the fence” as of Wednesday.
In a statement released this week, he said, “The situation in Syria is deeply troubling and any military response by the United States could have ramifications far beyond the Syrian border. Before deciding how I will vote when Congress returns to session, I will thoroughly review all of the available intelligence and learn all I can about the limited military action in Syria proposed by President Obama.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, in a statement Tuesday, characterized the Syrian conflict as “a fight for control between a brutal and murderous dictator and an opposition represented by al-Qaida affiliates and Islamic extremists” and said he would vote against a military strike.
He concluded, “It is not the time for Americans to be subjected to the potential of yet another unwinnable overseas war.”