By Eric Gunta
As lawmakers from both political parties urge President Obama to assume a more aggressive stance toward the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, several of Florida's Republican congressmen are warning that interference in that country's civil war is not in the U.S.' best interests.
"The last thing the [United States] needs to do is to plunge into an open-ended military conflict that's not vital to our national security," U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan tells Sunshine State News. "Providing military weapons to rebels, some of whom may have ties to al-Qaida, may prove to be very dangerous and reckless."
Buchanan was the first to sound the alarm against a bill filed May 6 by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called the Syria Stabilization Act of 2013. The bill would explicitly authorize the president to directly provide lethal weapons to Syrian rebel groups devoted to overthrowing the Assad regime, provided the groups in question are "vetted" to make sure they aren't linked to jihadists.
The New York Times reported in March that the Obama administration is already arming the rebels indirectly, through assistance the CIA is offering to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim governments.
Buchanan questions the plausibility of keeping these arms from flowing into the hands of terrorists, and he isn't alone.
"Who are the rebels? No one has a clear cut idea at all," freshman Rep. Trey Radel, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tells SSN. "Over the past couple of weeks, there have been all these questions as to whether or not Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons. We had intelligence that pointed to, 'Yes, it did.' But then later, the talk out of the United Nations was 'No, now we think it's a rebel faction.'
"When you have all of the Western world contradicting itself as to who's who in this battle, that to me is the clearest signal that we have no idea what's going on and we need to stay out."
In April, the Al-Nusra Front, a leading opposition group within the rebel ranks, released a statement pledging its allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Later that same month, the Times reported that "[n]owhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of"; areas controlled by rebel forces are implementing sharia law, which subjugates women and non-Muslims.
Fears that weapons might fall into the wrong hands have also been expressed by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.
"It is not the job of the U.S. government to pick winners and losers in other countries. It's the job of the federal government to protect the American people," Rep. Ted Yoho, another freshman and Foreign Affairs Committee member tells SSN. "I haven't seen a clear case where arming anyone in Syria makes any American safer. ... [T]he question of American safety, American sovereignty, and security defines my approach to the situation in Syria."
Rep. John Mica suggests that while intervention in Syria might have appeared prudent in the early days of the civil war, that time may be long past.
"Unfortunately, with the Obama administration's policy of leading from behind, we've waited for so long that it's hard to tell what group we would be arming and what other interests have taken hold," he tells SSN. "Our Israeli friends took matters into their own hands and instead of arming anyone they blew to kingdom-come some chemical-biological weapons that were being transported."
Asked whether the U.S. should take similar action against Assad, Mica admitted he wasn't "sure what course of action right now the United States should take. ... It's very hard to pick a winner right now. We might end up arming people who won't view the United States as their closest ally when this is all over."
Radel says he's confident the American public is war-weary and has little patience for foreign military incursions that amount to international social-engineering.
"This is an area I think right now both the left and the right in this country can rally behind: we are not the policemen of the world, and we are no longer going to tolerate a select few in Washington deciding where our kids go to lose their limbs -- or, worse, their lives -- for reasons that are generally unclear to the American public," he insists. "I do not want our young American men and women on the ground serving our country and risking their lives in an area where we cannot change thousands of years of history."
For Buchanan, American non-intervention in Syria is not just about national security, it's also a matter of dollars and cents.
"With the debts and deficits we currently have running -- trillion-dollar deficits the last three or four years -- we can't be the world's policeman," he tells SSN, pointing out that the U.S. has already given almost $400 million in humanitarian aid to assist millions of Syrians displaced by the conflict.
"I do a lot of town halls in my area," he continues. "Our biggest issue is running these debts and deficits, we give out billions of dollars around the world in terms of aid, that we don't get back, loans that many times don't get paid back, and the people are telling me we need to take a look at and reassess. And I don't disagree."
A spokesperson for Rep. Jeff Miller told SSN the congressman opposes arming the Syrian rebels.
Sen. Marco Rubio's office did not return comment before this story went to press, though Florida's freshman senator has previously expressed his support for providing armed assistance for rebel forces.