Friday June 28, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- It's not often that U.S. Rep. Peter Welch would join forces with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachman.

But that odd pairing between the Vermont Democrat and the controversial Minnesota Republican is one product of legislation aimed at blocking -- or, at least, publicly debating -- any U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war.

Vermont's lone House member said he is part of a "bipartisan coalition" of lawmakers concerned about the potential for a lengthy U.S. military campaign in the war-torn nation.

"We can't shoot our way to a solution in Syria," Welch said.

On Thursday, Welch joined legislators including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.; Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y.; Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for a press conference in Washington.

They announced legislation requiring "military intervention in Syria, including military assistance, to first be authorized by a joint resolution of Congress."

Humanitarian aid would be exempt from that requirement.

Bachmann, who became a national figure when she sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, is a co-sponsor of the House bill. Asked about that connection, Welch acknowledged that "I can't say we've been legislative soul mates."

But he maintains that, among the diverse collection of lawmakers, the uniting issue is this: "Should Congress play a role or be a passive bystander?"

Welch contends lawmakers have given the executive branch a "blank check" for military action since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"Congress has sort of frittered away our responsibility," he said.

And Welch believes that cannot happen in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has clashed with rebels since 2011. The conflict's death toll has been estimated at more than 100,000.

U.S. officials recently said Assad had used chemical weapons, declaring that such action had crossed a "red line" that justified military aid to the rebels.

Welch has seen the war's effects firsthand, having traveled to the region as part of a congressional trip in late April and early May. He visited a refugee camp on the Syria-Turkey border.

"It's heartbreaking to see the women and children there," Welch told the Reformer on Thursday. "Every fiber of your being wants to help. And we should help -- on the humanitarian level."

But Welch warns that "Americanizing this civil war is a mistake."

"It is vitally important that we recognize the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan," Welch said in a statement accompanying announcement of the legislation. "Syria is in a brutal and tragic civil war, the roots of which go back hundreds of years."

"If America walks down this path," Welch added, "Congress and the American people should first be part of a vigorous debate. Congress has the constitutional responsibility to authorize any action, and it should do its job."

The other two members of Vermont's congressional delegation say the Syrian conflict presents a complex foreign-policy problem for the U.S.

Vermont's senior senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy, "does not support putting troops into Syria" but also acknowledges that "the situation in Syria is highly complicated," spokesman David Carle said Thursday.

"He agrees with the president and many others that the Assad regime cannot murder its own people and use weapons of mass destruction with impunity, yet the connection between the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaida-aligned groups makes arming opposition groups strategically murky, difficult and potentially dangerous to U.S. national security," Carle said.

"The fact is that there are no good options in Syria," Carle added. Leahy "has spoken with many on this and continues to seek out the best information about the situation on the ground, what we can do to help and to learn more about the specifics of the president's plans for intervening."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., declared that Assad is a "terrible dictator" who "has got to go." But he also does not favor U.S. military intervention.

"The difficulty for the United States is to make certain that the opposition groups that we support in Syria are not extremists working with al-Qaida," Sanders said. "The United States should continue to work with the democratic secular organizations in the opposition toward a solution that does not draw the U.S. into another war in the Middle East."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.