By Ethan Forman
---- — SALEM — U.S. Rep. John Tierney has not said yet how he will vote on a proposed military strike in Syria, but his constituents, he said, have spoken loudly and clearly against it.
Calls to his office are running “overwhelmingly against going in,” Tierney said in an interview Friday.
The Salem Democrat, whose 6th Massachusetts congressional district includes Newburyport and surrounding communities, still hasn’t decided how to vote on President Obama’s call for limited strikes to punish the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
But Tierney is also questioning whether an attack by the United States alone would be a good idea, and he called for more information to be released by the president.
“Obviously, I do not think the administration has made its case,” Tierney said.
Tierney said that, by last week, his office had fielded 900 calls against a military strike, a handful who want more information and just 20 or so who are in favor of U.S. attacks.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind as we go through this,” Tierney said.
By some reports, the attack with chemical weapons outside Damascus on Aug. 21 killed 1,400 people, including many women and children. The Obama Administration has said the regime of President Bashar Assad is to blame. The Syrian government blamed the rebels.
Last Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of a strike against Syria, and Tierney said several resolutions have been introduced in the House. Tierney expects a vote in the House sometime this week, and said he plans to attend another briefing today.
Tierney is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but said it is unlikely this committee will debate Syria.
Tierney said that, while he has attended briefings, he has not heard anything there that has not been shared already with the American public.
“Going in unilaterally is not a good idea anyway,” Tierney said, “but when you have that ambiguity out there, you want to make sure people are dealing with the same set of facts.”
Classified information could be put out in such away that there would be a low risk in divulging its source, Tierney said.
“If we have information, let’s get it out there,” he added.
Tierney was critical of the international community, including NATO, the Arab League and the United Nations, for not standing up to the Assad regime. Tierney noted the U.N. “has not even come forward with its report” on the chemical weapons attack.
President Obama said in Stockholm Wednesday that the call to action against Syria is based on the need to enforce international treaties banning the use of chemical weapons in wartime.
Tierney has a problem with a strike on Syria on two fronts — both the legality and the efficacy of a military attack.
He doubts how effective a one-off strike or a “shot across the bow” might be in deterring the use of chemical weapons. More needs to be said about the strategy and what should be done long-term, Tierney said.
He also believes the United States is “on thin ice” legally when it comes to a unilateral attack, since it would go against “the fundamental laws set by international charters.” There is no evidence that Syria’s civil war presents a direct threat to the United States, he said.
Meanwhile, organizations like NATO and bordering states like Turkey are sitting on the sidelines.
Tierney said 100,000 people have died in more than two years of civil war in Syria, through the use of all manner of weapons. He said he has seen footage of what looks like incendiary bombs being used on civilians, including children. Bombing Syria would also put the Syrian people at risk, he added.
Treaties that ban the use of chemical weapons in warfare date to the Geneva Protocols of 1925, but Tierney said these treaties cover the use of chemical weapons between warring parties and are “silent on a case when they are used internally.”
In any case, Tierney said the matter of enforcing the chemical weapons treaty should be handled by the U.N.
Then there is the fallout from any U.S. attack. Would it mean Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, a staunch opponent of Israel, would be emboldened as it continues to back the Assad regime? Would Russia and Iran throw more support Assad’s way? If Assad’s regime were to fall because of military action, Tierney said, would a group unfriendly to the United States take over, or would there be anarchy?
One unintended consequence of the strike, he said, might be to put in jeopardy the cooperation of countries like Russia and Pakistan when it comes to withdrawing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“Has anyone thought about that prospect?” Tierney said.
However, when it comes to constituent concerns, Tierney said that is not the only measure he uses when deciding how to vote.
When faced with the resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iraq in 2002, Tierney said calls to his office were mostly in favor of going to war, yet he voted against the measure. In hindsight, he said it was the correct thing to do.