Should The U.S. Choose Sides In Syria? A Democrat Says 'Yes'

As violence grows in Syria, some in Congress say we should provide more assistance to the opposition. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., about why.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The dying and suffering in Syria gets worse every week, even as turmoil in other areas demands coverage, too. Last September 10th, President Obama seemed to make the case for U.S. involvement following Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians. This is not a world we should accept, said the president. It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.

But those words were not followed by action. And on September 14, the president announced that the U.S., Russia, and the Assad regime had agreed on a plan to remove and dismantle Syria's chemical weapons. But that program is far behind the agreed upon schedule, and the fighting continues.

Should the U.S. now take some kind of action now? The debate has risen above party and ideological lines. We're going to speak now with two members of Congress in turn: a Democrat who's in favor of some kind of US intervention, and a Republican who is opposed. First the Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel, senior ranking member on the House Foreign Relations Committee. He joins us from his district in the Bronx, New York. Mr. Engel, thanks so much for being with us.

REPRESENTATIVE ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.

SIMON: You've authored a bill that would give arms to Syrian rebels who are deemed to be moderates. What do you think that would do?

ENGEL: Well, let me say that I support the bill, obviously, but it would have been a lot better a year, year and a half ago if we had given arms to the well-vetted Free Syria Army. I'm still in favor of it. I spoke with King Abdullah of Jordan this week and he believes that we could get aid, at least to the southern Free Syria Army people, and that might tip the balance in the civil war. But it's gotten a lot more complicated since the time I first opposed arming the Free Syria Army. We have a jihadists pouring into Syria from all over the Middle East and other places. There are actually more jihadists in Syria today than there were in Iraq at the height of the Iraq war. And so we have on the one hand Mr. Assad, who's a murderer, who's killing his own people, who's responsible for killing almost 150,000, nine million refugees, four and a quarter million civilians internally are displaced. And it has the potential to destabilize other countries in the region. And that is a terrible thing.

SIMON: Mr. Engel, there are a lot of people who look at the world over the last few years - and I'll even cite a couple of instances - Egypt, Libya - where they say moderates formed what we thought was the heart of an uprising there and then fundamentalists wind up taking over the government or large parts of the country, and they don't see any reason why that wouldn't happen in Syria, and ask why should we help bring that about?

ENGEL: Because I think the United States stands for something in the world. And I think that we don't want to stand idly by while civilians are being massacred by their own government.

SIMON: And, Mr. Engel, how do you meet the slippery slope argument that goes if arming the rebels doesn't do the job, there will people who say but, wait, U.S. power and prestige is being tested so we have to begin airstrikes, and if that doesn't do the job then maybe we need troops to help keep a peace.

ENGEL: Well, I remain not in favor of troops. We have just been fighting too long wars. I think the country is war weary and I don't think the intervention of troops is the right thing for us to do. But I do think there are lots of things that we can do. We have superior air power. There are things we can do with our allies to, again, to at least lessen the siege of these people who are being murdered by their own government and hope that we can still get some arms to Free Syria Army and some of the other well-vetted rebels. But there are no good choices left in Syria. There are no good choices. But I think the worst choice is to do nothing.

SIMON: Representative Eliot Engel of New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ENGEL: Thank you.

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