Elected officials line up on Syria

MARQUETTE – In the hours leading up to President Barack Obama’s nationwide address tonight on proposed military action in Syria, administration officials and Michigan lawmakers have issued statements on the situation.

President Obama’s speech is scheduled for 9 p.m. today. The president is hoping to gain Congressional support for limited military action in response to Syria’s reported Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in an attack on Damascus suburbs killing 1,429 people, including 426 children.

On Monday, Russia proposed Syria could instead turn over its chemical weapons to international control to be destroyed. The proposal also would see Syria abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

According to news reports, Obama said Monday the proposal could be a significant breakthrough, but was skeptical Syria would follow through on its pledge.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It’s long overdue that Russia weigh in to get its client state to give up its chemical weapons and abide by international law,” Levin said Monday in a news release. “If Russia is serious, and not just helping Syria stall, it could make a difference. But we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high given Syria’s past behavior and Russia’s lockstep support for Syria with weapons and with its United Nations veto.”

Today, news reports said Syria had agreed to the proposal. French officials were expected to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, polls have not indicated overwhelming support for military action. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have been split on the military proposal.

Last week, in Grand Rapids, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she was skeptical of military activity in Syria, but also that the brutality shown by a chemical attack cannot be tolerated.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said he intends to vote against American military strikes in Syria.

“I believe a majority of Northern Michigan’s citizens have grown tired of war in the Middle East and are very wary of getting involved in another nation’s civil war. That’s why I’m planning to vote against taking military action in Syria,” Benishek said in a news release. “The killing of innocent people in Syria has been horrible, but I don’t think getting our nation in the middle of their conflict is in America’s best interest.”

Benishek, who serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he formed his decision after carefully reading a resolution proposing military action and listening to the concerns of many citizens in Northern Michigan,

A Senate vote scheduled for Wednesday was postponed by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada. The House would vote after the Senate.

“Frankly, I think we need to be decreasing our military presence overseas, not increasing it,” Benishek said. “The message I’ve heard from Northern Michigan’s citizens is pretty clear – we don’t want another war. So, I urge the President to listen to the American people and not get our nation entangled in another conflict in the Middle East.”

In a message to constituents, Benishek said he has received thousands of correspondences from citizens in Northern Michigan expressing their thoughts on this issue and the overwhelming majority has been opposed to new military action in Syria.

“We the people are speaking and I am hopeful Washington will listen,” Benishek said.

On Friday, the United States and 10 other countries issued a joint statement on Syria, “condemning in the strongest terms the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons” and “calling for a strong international response.” The statement explicitly supports the efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

On Monday, the White House said 14 additional countries were now supporting the statement including Albania, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Honduras, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Morocco, Qatar, Romania and the United Arab Emirates.

The original 10 counties supporting the U.S. statement were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Monday urged support for the president’s plan.

“In response to Bashar al-Assad’s barbaric use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, President Obama, after careful consideration, has decided that it is in the national security interest of the United States to conduct limited military strikes against the Syrian regime,” Rice said. “President Obama has asked Congress for its support in this action, because in a democracy, our policies are stronger, more effective and more sustainable when they have the support of the American people and their elected leaders.”

Rice said Obama’s address to the nation tonight will make his case for taking action.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.