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Sen. Mike Lee warns missile strikes against Syria could be dangerous

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 6:20 p.m. MDT

Sen. Mike Lee  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Sen. Mike Lee (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — After sitting through a top-secret Senate briefing by military leaders Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said missile strikes against the Syrian government could be dangerous.

"We have the potential here to be mired deeper and deeper," Lee said of President Barack Obama's proposed response to last month's deadly sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb linked to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

There's no guarantee the strikes could wipe out the Assad regime's access to chemical weapons, Lee said, creating "the very real possibility he could carry out another chemical attack on his own people and perhaps even be emboldened."

The closed-door testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and others included "an impassioned plea," Lee said.

But it wasn't enough to persuade him. Lee said he is "not inclined" to support a resolution narrowly approved Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee giving the president authority to strike Syria.

"I am not persuaded, at this point, this is the right thing to do," Lee said. "I think it's dangerous to do that if, as we're being told, that what we would do wouldn't even eliminate (Assad's) chemical weapons capacity."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has taken no position yet on the resolution, his spokesman, Matthew Harakal said.

"He's reviewing intelligence reports before deciding how he'll vote," Harakal said.

Lee said there is not the political will among members of Congress, the public or the administration for getting further involved in Syria's civil war if the military action fails to "scare (Assad) enough" not to use chemical weapons again.

Still, Lee said he couldn't rule out the possibility something might change his mind.

"It's difficult to say that no matter what, I wouldn't consider anything else," he said. "This is a very fluid situation, and circumstances have been known to change."

Although Lee is often aligned with libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., he said he is not ready to weigh in on Paul's attempt to stop Obama from taking action if Congress fails to pass the authorization.

Utah's junior senator also declined to back a comment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggesting U.S. involvement with the rebel forces in Syria would put the American forces in the position of serving "as al-Qaida's air force."

Lee, who has also teamed up on a number of issues with fellow tea party conservative Cruz, said that's not how he would describe the situation.

"This is not a simple conflict," he said.

"The politics of this are really complex," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said. "Even putting aside obvious partisan concerns, it's a very difficult issue to try to sort out."

Burbank said Republicans such as Paul are arguing against intervention, while the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is pushing the president to get even more involved in the civil war.

The president's decision to seek authorization before proceeding against Syria "puts Congress in a position where they really do have to make a decision when what they really wanted to do is just complain," Burbank said.

He said Congress is right to be skeptical about the impact of missile strikes. He predicted there would be little political consequence for members of Congress, whichever way they ultimately vote.

Middle East expert and independent documentary filmmaker Dodge Billingsley said the Obama administration faces a public weary of war, "so the idea of America traipsing into another conflict is a little bit worrisome."

Billingsley said the administration is trying to find a middle ground in the Syrian war.

"This is the trick the administration has to deal with," he said. "They want to send a signal and not allow these chemical weapons to be used, but not tip the power to the opposition."

Contributing: Richard Piatt

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