September 6, 2013

Syrian rebels concern Maine delegation

A video, released by The New York Times, shows Syrian rebels executing prisoners from President Assad's military.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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In this screen capture from a video on the New York Times website that was posted on Thursday, Syrian rebel fighters stand over seven Syrian government soldiers with guns near Idlib, Syria in April 2012. The rebel fighters, under orders from commander Abdul Samad Issa, at right, allegedly shot the captured soldiers and put their bodies into a mass grave.

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Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, as she arrives for a closed-door briefing on Syria. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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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."

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