Few of the Vermonters who dialed in to the teleconference expressed support for the strikes, which President Obama has called for in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack on rebel-held territory outside Damascus on August 21.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies the allegations and claims the sarin gas attack was the work of opposition rebel forces. Welch, who said he had attended a briefing on the matter shortly before the call, told listeners that the intelligence builds a good circumstantial case in support of the Obama administration’s claim that the Assad regime is responsible for the attack. “We know they have the rockets to launch chemical weapons, we know the rockets used in the attack were launched from territory held by the Syrian regime in Damascus, and we know they landed in rebel-held areas.”
Later in the conversation, Welch also noted that SIGINT, signals intelligence, was collected that supports the contention that the attack was perpetrated by the Assad government. “We have some signals intelligence, eavesdropping,” he said. “We don’t have Assad on the phone saying ‘Drop it now,’ but we have conversations.” Welch described the conversations collected as part of a strong “circumstantial” case against the Syrian government.
“You also have a lot of evidence coming from social media. YouTube videos show in real time the symptoms of sarin gas. There were 3,600 people going to hospitals in a short amount of time.”
Welch praised the president’s decision to seek congressional approval for the strikes, but he acknowledged that Vermonters, like other Americans, have expressed skepticism about the proposed military strikes. Among the issues Welch said he was most concerned about were the consequences of not taking a stand on the international “norm” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, the implications of a US strike, and the potential of an escalating involvement in Syria’s civil war. “The Syrian civil war is not our conflict,” he said, “It goes back centuries, and I believe the US should not get involved.”
Welch noted that some Syrian groups have continued to support the regime simply because they feared any alternative could be worse. “They fear a slaughter if any of the opposition groups won (the civil war),” he said.
Welch also questioned the wisdom of military involvement in another Middle Eastern country. “We’ve been burned by two bad wars, we don’t need a third war in the Middle East.”
One of the callers, Beverly, of Linden, said her grandson served two tours in Afghanistan, and she didn’t trust promises that strikes wouldn’t lead to US involvement on the ground in Syria. “I’m not confident that we won’t have boots on the ground if it escalates,” she said. “I implore you to vote ‘no.’”
Welch declined to say how he would vote, but agreed with the caller that no ground troops should be involved in Syria. “I’m going through the process and doing my due diligence,” he said. “But I am approaching it with skepticism.”
The caller also asked about a Russian proposal, which has since garnered interest from the Obama administration, to round up Syria’s “weapons of mass destruction” with the regime’s cooperation, and put them under international control. “The Russian initiative sounds great,” Welch said. “I don’t know how solid it’s going to be, but if the Russians are going to play a constructive role in putting the weapons under international control, that’s great.”
Frank, from Jericho, urged Welch to consider voting in favor of the strikes, however. He recalled the US and NATO strikes on Libya, and the impact they had in turning that country’s civil war against Muammar Gaddafi who, he said, wasn’t “nearly as brutal” as the Assad regime.
Welch said the caller had a good point, and also noted that there’s additional concern that, in the event of the current government’s defeat, the chemical weapons could end up in the hands of radical groups.
A caller from White River Junction said Americans must look after their own country. “We haven’t even begun to pay off the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We have to look at the situation in our own country. Chemical warfare is a horrendous thing, but we don’t have any strategic interest.”
The caller also suggested that any strike carries the risk of civilian casualties. “It would be a criminal act that would reap more victims.”
Keith, from Westford, had a similar observation. He said he had studied with a number of Syrians in college, and kept in touch through social media. “What is the number of civilian casualties you feel comfortable causing with these strikes?” he asked. “What is successful? If you kill two families and destroy one helicopter, is that a good trade-off?”
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Welch said, ‘but that is the heart of the matter. If we could take out the chemical weapons and save thousands of lives, it would be a good deal. But, as you point out, despite the best efforts of military folks to avoid civilian casualties, if we launch a strike, we have to expect that to happen. And what is the benefit? Will we actually create more harm than good with the loss of life?”
Adrian, of Pawlet, called the teleconference an “unprecedented exercise in democracy” and thanked Welch for seeking direct input from his constituents. He also urged support for a military strike in the event that the Russian initiative were to fall flat. “The paradox here is that none of us want to see military action, but the more serious we are about using it, the less likely we will have to use it now and in the future. I think this is an intervention that has already made a difference – there has been no use of chemical weapons since August 21.”
Welch agreed that the debate over the use of force “put Assad on notice.”
Dave in Burlington said he was in favor of a limited strike, noting that, from his experience in the Middle East, “countries get respect and action by being able to exert their power.”
Several callers urged restraint while the United States explores the Russian proposal.