The Syria question: To arm or not to arm? Corker takes long view on Mideast quagmire

The Syria question: To arm or not to arm? Corker takes long view on Mideast quagmire

June 24th, 2013 by Chris Carroll in Local Regional News

In this citizen journalism image provided by The Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Assad, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian regime protesters hold banners and chant slogans during a demonstration in the neighborhood of Bustan Al-Qasr in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, June 21, 2013. Syriaís rebel commander Gen. Salim Idris confirms they have received new weapons putting his anti-government forces in better position in fighting against government troops and Lebanonís Hezbollah fighters.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you support arming Syrian rebels?

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and House Republicans from Tennessee find themselves on opposite planks of the Syria debate embroiling the Capitol.

On the hawkish side is Corker, a Republican respected for his views on American outreach as ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The former Chattanooga mayor favors arming "moderate" Syrian rebels the administration has fully "vetted," always with a no-boots-on-the-ground caveat.

A bill he shepherded through committee resembles President Barack Obama's recent decision to supply rebels with small arms and ammunition without sending a fresh batch of soldiers into the Middle East.

Once President Bashar al-Assad is defeated, Corker says, American intervention is essential to help Syrian moderates fill the resulting power vacuum, as opposed to extremist forces linked to al-Qaida.

On the isolationist side are House Republicans such as Scott DesJarlais, Diane Black and Phil Roe. They were first elected in 2008 and 2010, and Afghanistan and Iraq are fresh on their minds. Generally, the trio says arming anyone could escalate the conflict, which already has claimed at least 90,000 lives, The New York Times reports.

"The enemy of our enemy is not always our friend," DesJarlais said in a recent statement posted on his website. "How many times have we armed rebels in the Middle East only to have those weapons used against us at a later date?"

Usually quick to back Corker and show a united front, these legislators have no problem raising objections on Syria.

"He may have different information than I do," said Black, a Nashville-area Republican. "I haven't talked to Senator Corker. I don't really know why he's made the decision he's made."

Roe and others confirmed that Corker hasn't kept Tennessee's House delegation in the loop. Noting the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan and recent struggles in Libya, Roe said he wasn't ready to repeat history.

"I think the best side to be on is neither," Roe said. "There's no way we win there."

The dispute shows a wide disconnect in viewpoints, as Corker takes the long view and House members focus on the here and now. Corker says supporting the rebels puts America ahead of the inevitable power struggles that will occur after al-Assad's demise.

"I guess that's why we have a Congress -- people with different views," Corker said in a brief interview. "I've spent a lot of time on the issue. I feel very good about what we sent out of committee."

Corker has at least one -- unlikely -- ally in U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat generally considered to be the biggest liberal among Tennessee's 11-member delegation.

"Secretary [of State John] Kerry and the president have the overall perspective of the United States foreign policy," Cohen said. "How Syria plays into it is part of the puzzle. It's not something simply on its own. So I tend to support what the president does, short of putting boots on the ground."

Overwhelmingly, however, most local House members describe Syria as an unpredictable cauldron.

"When America involves itself in a nation's civil war, whoever loses is going to be angry at the United States for determining outcome," said U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican who represents Northeast Alabama. "And in the Middle East, that creates a huge pool of recruits for terrorist organizations."

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfree or 423-280-2025.