On Syria, Minnesotans in Congress look for diplomatic alternatives

United States Syria

Even before Monday's offer by Russia to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, Minnesota’s members of Congress who oppose a U.S. attack on Syria were looking for other diplomatic measures that could be used to avoid a conflict.

Speaking at an event in Minnesota last week U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen repeated his opposition to an American strike on Syria.

“I think the proper response needs to be to rally the international community,” said Paulsen, a Republican who represents Minnesota’s 3rd District. “When you’ve got 190-some countries that have signed a chemical warfare ban and making sure there are war crimes that are charged, and have an international trial.”

He’s not alone.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents the 8th District, has been among the loudest Democratic voices against a strike. He has called for the International Criminal Court to charge top officials of the Syrian regime with crimes against humanity.

But Syria isn’t a member of the court and isn’t under its jurisdiction. The United Nations Security Council could direct the ICC to step in, but that probably won’t be the case this time said Susana SáCouto, executive director of the War Crimes Research Office at American University in Washington, D.C.

“In this case, there is no unity on the Council, as you know, on Syria,” SáCouto said. “So it’s unlikely to happen.”

China and Russia have blocked past attempts by the international community to crack down on Syria, but that hasn’t stopped Minnesota lawmakers from looking to Russia, one of Syria’s key allies.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann proposes that Russia invite Syrian president Basher al-Assad to leave the country.

“They could offer an asylum to Assad so he would leave,” said Bachmann, a Republican who represents the the 6th District. “He’s a polarizing figure in Syria.”

But Daniel Byman, the research director of the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution, thinks that’s highly wishful thinking for at least a couple of reasons.

“One is he himself doesn’t want to go,” Byman said. “And the other is that from a U.S. policy point of view the problem is not just Assad, it’s his broader regime and even more than that, who would replace the regime.”

Even if the U.S. military were to launch a strike against Syria’s chemical weapons now, Byman thinks it would have a limited effect and do little to strengthen the rebels.

“There is no short-term solution to this,” he said. “If the United States wants to move Syria in the right direction on this, it has to be a long-term policy.”

A long-term approach would identify, train and arm opposition factions who are likely to be friendly to the West.

That’s a lot like what American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have attempted over the past decade, with mixed results.

So members of Congress are in a bind. If they back the strikes, they could risk having the United States be involved in yet another bloody conflict in a Muslim country. If they oppose the strikes, they could be viewed as having allowed the killing of civilians with poison gas to go unpunished.

Brian Atwood, a professor and foreign policy expert at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, said it’s not a surprise that deciding whether to authorize a strike is a hard vote for members of Congress.

“I think Congress never wants to vote on a difficult issue like this,” Atwood said.

Russia’s proposal that Syria give up its chemical weapons is seen by many as the first sign of a potential diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Atwood said that at a time like this, when diplomatic breakthroughs are brewing, Congress needs to give President Barack Obama the strongest negotiating hand possible.

“I think that’s a very interesting diplomatic move on the part of the Russians,” Atwood said. “If the Congress doesn’t give the president authority to use force however, I wonder whether or not that idea will just be lost.”

The president has been lobbying lawmakers hard for their votes. But the more important audience may be a skeptical American public, who he will address from the White House tonight.


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