Alaska senators say they're not sold on Syria strike

Nathaniel Herz

President Barack Obama wants permission from Congress for a military strike against the Syrian government. But the members of Alaska's delegation are far from ready to give it.

In interviews, both Alaska senators said that the Obama administration had not yet presented them with a plan for attack that they would support. And a spokesman for Rep. Don Young said in a written statement that he remains opposed to American intervention in Syria.

"Syria is a piece of the puzzle," said Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat. "And I really haven't seen it delivered to me at this point that striking on Syria helps us solve issues that are much broader in the Middle East."

The skepticism comes nearly two weeks after an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria killed 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, according to a public intelligence assessment by the U.S. government.

The assessment concludes that the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Al-Assad, was responsible for the attack. In August of 2012, as the Syrian civil war escalated, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line," and that there would be "enormous consequences" for such an attack.

Over the last week, Obama considered ordering a strike on his own, before announcing on Saturday -- after the British parliament voted against participating in an attack -- that he would seek Congressional approval.

That vacillation, said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, hurts Obama, given his forceful "red line" comment a year ago.

"It makes the president weak, it makes the administration weak, it makes this country weak," she said in a phone interview Monday. "If he didn't mean it, he shouldn't have said it."

Murkowski, a Republican who is in Alaska during Congress's end-of-summer break, said public information and unclassified briefings have led her to believe the Assad government carried out the attack. But she said she couldn't be certain of that until she returns to Washington on Sept. 8, where she anticipates receiving a classified briefing.

Assuming that the evidence is convincing, Murkowski said that the Obama administration would then need to provide a credible plan not just for an isolated strike against Assad, but also for contingencies.

"What happens if Syria comes back, Iran goes nuts, North Korea decides, 'we want to get in on this game, too?'" she said. "What is our long-term strategy in the Middle East, and how does this intersect? I have yet to hear that from this administration."

Begich, who has returned to Washington, said in a phone interview that he has no doubt that the Syrian government "did this to their own people."

Begich would support a strike only if it narrowly targeted Assad's chemical weapons, without putting American forces on the ground in Syria, and came with a clear cost accounting and exit strategy.

"Some might say this is setting pretty high standards. My answer is, yes, when you're putting American lives and resources on the line, you bet we should have high standards," he said. "Some will say that the position I've taken would make it impossible to ever support (a strike), and that may be true."

Rep. Young was moose hunting and was unreachable, said spokesman Mike Anderson. In an emailed statement, Anderson said that Young, a Republican, "looks forward to the Obama administration making its case to Congress."

"So far, the reasoning from the White House appears muddy at best," Anderson said.

Anderson said Alaskans contacting Young's office have been "overwhelmingly" against U.S. military action in Syria.

Begich received similar feedback, he said, citing a man who told him that the U.S. "can't be the policemen of the world."

Murkowski said that she had received a "mixed bag" of comments from constituents -- some saying the U.S. should have gotten involved in the conflict long ago, some saying that the Americans should stay out of the Syrian conflict, and others expressing a range of views about whether Obama should act unilaterally, or only with permission from Congress.

"The one thing I can tell you with clarity is I hear from Alaskans the refrain that 'man, we are tired of war,'" she added.

Both Murkowski and Begich were vague when asked about alternatives to an American military strike on Assad.

Begich said he would prefer to see international intervention come from the United Nations Security Council, blasting China and Russia for resisting efforts there to authorize the use of force against Syria -- though he did not say how the U.S. could overcome that resistance.

"I can't tell you that," he said. "I can tell you that there's a lot of efforts engaged right now."

Murkowski said that the Obama administration should be prepared to present alternatives if he can't get his plans through Congress -- though she declined to speculate on what those alternatives might be.

"We're a week away from beginning these full-on discussions," she said. "In the mean time, things could change. It's a very volatile situation over there."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.