Utah's congressional delegation questions new Syria proposal

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 10 2013 2:35 p.m. MDT

Members of Utah's congressional delegation raised questions Tuesday about a new proposal calling for the United Nations to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Utah's congressional delegation raised questions Tuesday after the president's national address outlining international diplomatic efforts to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

President Barack Obama asserted international law was broken when a recent deadly chemical weapons attack, linked to Syrian President Bashar Assad, was executed against more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb, including children.

Obama did not back down from the possibility of a targeted military strike against Syria should diplomatic efforts fail, but announced he is asking Congress to delay a vote authorizing the use of force in the meantime.

"We have to approach this with a really healthy degree of skepticism," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said of the proposal from Russia intended to avert military action against Syria by the United States.

Following Obama's address, Lee reaffirmed his stance that the president hasn't proved the Syrian civil war poses a threat to U.S. national security.

"My greatest concern remains the likelihood that the approved strike would leave Assad in power with access to these weapons and lead our country further into war," Lee said in a statement. "The better path for the president would be to continue to work with our allies to secure Syria's chemical weapons and ensure they do not proliferate throughout the region."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Tuesday night joined the rest of the state's congressional delegation in criticizing Obama's request for congressional authorization to launch missile strikes in Syria, saying that the president's speech left him with more questions than answers.

"I continue to have strong reservations about authorizing the use of force against Syria," Hatch said following Obama's remarks. "The president and his team have struggled to explain why taking action against the Assad regime is in the American people's best interest. Unfortunately, I do not believe tonight's speech has done much to clarify this."

Hatch questioned the president's long-term strategy in Syria and the Middle East, and he criticized the nation's apparent dependency on Russia.

"A diplomatic resolution is always preferred over military action, but what would that resolution entail, and who will broker it? Years of President Obama leading from behind on the international stage has put the United States of America — the greatest country in the world — in the position of relying on Russia to serve as our negotiator in the region," he said. "That's not something anybody should feel comfortable about, but because of the president’s failure to lead or confront the challenges facing the Middle East, that’s where we find ourselves."

Prior to the president's address, Lee and Utah's four representatives in the House all expressed concern about the potential of becoming involved in Syria's ongoing civil war despite assurances the strikes would be limited.

Their doubts about taking military action in the Middle East appear to be shared by a majority of Americans, according to recent polls, as well as many members of Congress.

Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said this is not a partisan issue. He said the United States has "to be a little skeptical about the veracity of the Russians in proposing this, if they really want to follow through with this."

Obama's remarks Tuesday night did not sway his vote, he said.

"If I were to vote on whether or not there's going to be a use of military force, I would continue to vote no," Matheson said.

While Russia's proposal of using diplomatic means to round-up Syria's chemical weapons is gaining support internationally, it remains "a complicated undertaking," he said.

Earlier in the day, Matheson said it is important that efforts to disarm Syria are not delayed months or years.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, along with several other members of Congress, met for 90 minutes with Vice President Joe Biden in the White House on Tuesday morning.

"I'm still a 'no' on this," Chaffetz told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright shortly after the meeting, which he said included a discussion of classified information he could not share. "We did get into some more of the details about why they feel so strongly about this."

While it's not "definitive" the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attack, he said "it's increasingly clear they probably did do this. I still left with the impression that the mission itself is maybe not as clear as it could or should be."

As for the proposal to take international control over Syria's chemical weapons, Chaffetz said he wants to be optimistic but also feels "very skeptical that this can be pulled off and hopefully is not just a delay tactic."

Following the president's speech, Chaffetz said on Twitter that Obama had not addressed possible consequences of "going to war with Syria," affirming "I am still a no."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, heard testimony Tuesday from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the need for action against Syria.

Bishop responded critically after the president's speech Tuesday night, questioning what would ultimately be defined as success if military action is taken.

"After attending classified briefings and having given serious consideration to the administration’s proposal for military action in Syria, I believe it is in the best interest of the United States to refrain from taking military action in Syria," he said. "The president's handling of this matter has created far more questions than have been answered."

If the alternative proposal is legitimate and workable, Bishop said he would be supportive.

"It would be a marvelous step forward for all mankind," he said.

Also Tuesday, Utah's newest member of Congress, GOP Rep. Chris Stewart, issued a statement opposing authorizing military strikes in Syria, citing a lack of the public support needed to justify the risks associated with intervention.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsPolitics

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