WASHINGTON — New reports of Syrian rebels executing prisoners and of terrorist groups infiltrating anti-government forces are further complicating debate in Congress about whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria’s civil war, members of Maine’s delegation said Thursday.
The New York Times released video Thursday that reputedly shows Syrian rebels executing unarmed soldiers from President Bashar Assad’s military. The video — one of several that have surfaced in recent months — came to light as Maine Sen. Susan Collins and other members of Congress raise new concerns about the role of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations within the rebel forces.
“The questions I ask raise still more questions,” said Collins, a Republican who has attended numerous classified briefings on Syria since last weekend.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said the brutal video of seven men being executed in 2012 “reinforces some of the questions being raised about who are our allies there” and what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish with military strikes against Assad’s forces.
“I think it adds to the complexity of the situation,” said Pingree, who is leaning toward opposing targeted military strikes in response to Assad’s alleged used of chemical weapons. “It reminds all of us that it is a bloody and complicated civil war on the inside as well.”
Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine echoed that Thursday. While it’s only one factor, the video is “definitely part of my consideration” as he decides whether to support a resolution authorizing U.S. intervention, Michaud said.
“It is shocking, and that is why the decision to strike Syria is not an easy one, quite frankly,” he said. “The fact is, you look at the rebels and you see what is in the video. … I know the president said he wants to help the rebels, but who are we really helping? I’ll be considering everything: not only the video and the report, but also what I’m hearing from constituents.”
Such sentiments from two members of Obama’s own party illustrate the challenge the administration faces as it attempts to win over lawmakers even as they are hearing from constituents who strongly oppose military action. White House officials said the president was making calls Thursday to members of Congress as he attended an economic summit in Russia.
Just days before a Senate vote, a survey by The Associated Press showed 34 senators supporting or leaning toward military action, 26 opposed or leaning against it, and 40 undecided. Both of Maine’s senators appear to be among the undecided.
Collins, a moderate Republican and an influential voice on homeland security issues, said lawmakers heard during classified briefings this week that intelligence agencies have evidence that two organizations affiliated with al-Qaida are now fighting alongside the rebels in Syria.
“The fact is that the opposition forces have been thoroughly infiltrated by not one but two offshoots of al-Qaida,” said Collins. Those reports raise troubling questions, Collins said, about who would replace Assad if his government fell.
Collins did not specifically address the execution video in an interview Thursday. Her spokesman said she had not watched it.
Maine independent Sen. Angus King was unavailable for comment Thursday, but his spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, said King was aware of the news reports on the execution video. King had seen the video, she said.
“Senator King has long been concerned about extremism, and this report is yet another example of the extraordinarily violent situation on the ground in Syria,” Canney said. “The senator will continue to gather information and opinion before casting a vote.”
As two members of the 15-person Senate Intelligence Committee, Collins and King have been heavily involved in closed-door briefings on Syria all week in Washington. Pingree and Michaud plan to attend briefings in Washington next week.
Collins said the evidence is “compelling and convincing” that the Syrian government — not rebel forces — was behind the chemical weapons attacks on Aug. 21 that the U.S. claims killed more than 1,400 people. Outside groups have put the death toll in the hundreds.
Collins said questions that she has asked during briefings have only led to more questions. As an example, she said there is clear evidence that Assad is moving his military assets around, making it impossible for even the most targeted military strikes to take out all of his chemical weapons.
“So a key question for me is: What would happen if he decides to prove the military strikes did not eliminate his capability and he decides to launch another attack?” Collins said. “It appears the administration’s answer to that is they would likely launch another strike. That is one of my concerns, that we might be drawn further and further into a protracted civil war.”
Collins wonders whether international options need further exploration, including responses through the United Nations and NATO. She also said she would like to see Arab nations — many of which have condemned Assad — take a larger role in the issue.
Collins, Michaud and Pingree all questioned whether the U.S. should take the role of punishing Assad, especially given the feedback they are receiving from constituents. The vast majority of people who have contacted Maine’s four members of Congress have opposed military intervention.
“Nothing I have heard yet really counters the questions that people are raising,” Pingree said.
“What is happening over there is just shocking, but I have said all along that we cannot be the police force for the world,” Michaud said.
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