Rep. Rush Holt: There Must be an International Solution to Syrian Crisis

Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ, represents the 12th Congressional District of New Jersey. Franklin Township is the largest Somerset County town in that district.

This is the first of what we plan to be regular conversations with the Congressman about issues of interest to Franklin residents.

This first installment deals with the United States’ reaction to the Syrian civil war, and the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government against rebels. President Obama’s initial decision to use military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in reaction to that has been tempered lately with his tacit endorsement  of a deal offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin that would relieve Syria of its chemical weapons cache.

In a televised address recently. President Obama expressed support for the idea, and put on hold his plans to request Congressional approval for military action.


Franklin Reporter & Advocate: What’s your reaction to President Obama’s comments the other evening on the Syrian situation?

Rep. Rush Holt: I thought it was quite good. He was given this awkward position, when he requested the time, and announced he was going to address the country, and then it was a different message. The initial (argument) was that Assad has given us no choice but to attack, and I want all of you Americans to be with me. Then in the intervening time, the international community, particularly Russia but also with some other countries, said maybe we’re wiling to try some other choices. The president still had the time reserved, he still needed to address the union, he still felt he needed to show the resolve to use force because that’s, he believes, how we got to where we are.

Given that difficult situation, I think the president gave a very good speech. I have not been persuaded all along that a unilateral strike or a strike that would be perceived to be unilateral, even if some other nations were cheering us on, would be effective in enforcing international standards against chemical weapons.

The international community should enforce prohibitions against chemical weapons. I don’t think it can be done by one nation making a military strike against another nation. I don’t think that’s an effective way. Add to that complications for the United States and potential detriments to the United States – an expanded war, increased instability, a vacuum if it leads to the downfall of Assad and no obvious moderate, democratic-leaning group to succeed Assad should that happen – for all of those reasons, not to mention the possibility of civilian collateral damage, the possibility of a reaction, retribution that would affect us or our allies badly, all of those reasons have given me pause.

We’re now in a different place. I’m cautiously hopeful that the international effort with Russia and the United States will lead to a securing of some or most or all of the chemical weapons in Syria. I do think that there’s an opportunity for more nations to be involved in this. In particular, I think Iran could play a constructive role. They’ve given some hints that they would play a constructive role. I think we should test … the new leader in Iran has said several times in recent months that he wants to be more constructive in interactions with the United States on the world stage, so this would be an opportunity.

FR&A: Where were you leaning on the question of bombing Syria?

RH: I don’t announce what my vote is before I know what we’re voting on. Everybody was jumping on I’m a yes or I’m a no, and I said we don’t even know what the resolution is going to be, what the language of a resolution would be. So I have a pretty high threshold to reach to want to use military force. That has not been met yet, so I think a lot of people count me as an opponent. But I want to see this resolved, I want to see international standards against the use of weapons of mass destruction held high and enforced. So we’ll see.

FR&A: You’ve mentioned before that an international solution must be found to this crisis. Why do you think that is important?

RH: It seems so obvious to me that international standards cannot be set by a single nation, nor can they be enforced by a single nation. No more than social standards can be set by a single person. We should be the exemplar of good international behavior but we can’t be the single enforcer of good international behavior.

This is at least a step in that direction. The Russians are still making it difficult to get the kind of resolution we should get from the Security Council. They will make it difficult to take Assad or any other likely culprits to the International Criminal Court, as we probably should do. But I do think the administration for several months now has been too negative on the possibility of cooperating with Russia. Its true Russia has been hard to work with, at the UN and just about anywhere else. Putin personally has been even disrespectful in his relations with President Obama. But in the case of Syria in particular, we need to be persistent, even relentless in getting the cooperation of other nations in this .

The Secretary of State isn’t even yet in Geneva as we talk. So there’s a lot we need to do.  We have to make sure that Russia is actually going to do something here, that they will exert some leverage on Assad. Assad has to at least agree not to attack any inspectors. He may not agree to a ceasefire, the rebels may not agree to a ceasefire, so inspections could take place. I think it’s going to be impossible to actually get the chemical weapons safely out of Syria while there’s a war going on, or even if the war is on hold. It’s hard to transport these things safely, but it may be possible to secure them in place. How that would be done is going to take some pretty tough, detailed negotiations and that’s going to take time. And that’s OK. It would be better to have a good outcome than a fast outcome.

FR&A: Should the United States ever get involved in Syria’s civil war?

RH: Not if it is seen as unilateral, we certainly should not. Even if it is international, we really have to think about the implications. What does it do to the region, what does it do the Assad regime. What k of blowback would there be on Americans in embassies and military installations around the region, around the world. Would there be American deaths likely. Once you have soldiers present in the midst of a civil war, there’s a risk of loss of life. Americans right now, I think, are not in the mood to sacrifice any of their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters in a civil war in Syria.

Your Thoughts


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