The United States should not rashly attack Syria over its government’s apparent use of chemical weapons, and President Obama should ask Congress to approve any strike on the country before launching one, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens) said in a statement issued Friday.
Maloney’s statement appears to be the first released by any of Queens’ federal representatives on the possibility of the United States launching air strikes against Syria.
[UPDATE: She was later joined by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn, Queens) in warning the administration that it must speak to Congress first. Velazquez in fact said Obama needs explicit congressional approval to strike. See below.]
According to national reports, the president is likely to order a limited attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad over his apparent use of chemical weapons in a recent massacre of hundreds of civilians. The move is supported by the French government but was disapproved yesterday by the British, who formerly were in support, after their parliament narrowly voted against military action. Following the vote, which was nonbinding, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would stand down.
In the United States, Obama faces some opposition in Congress to launching air strikes, especially on the Republican side of the aisle. Among analysts, opponents say the president does not have the authority to attack the country — which is riled by a civil war said to have killed tens of thousands of people over the last two years — because it is not threatening Americans.
While the president is commander in chief of the Armed Forces, only Congress can declare war, and the War Powers Act passed after the Vietnam conflict only allows a president to launch military action without congressional approval in response to an attack on Americans or as a pre-emptive measure to thwart an imminent attack.
The president said a year ago that if Assad’s military used chemical weapons in his war against the rebels, he would be crossing a “red line” that would change Obama’s view on whether the United States should get involved in the conflict. Administration officials have been telling the media that the United States may attack to send Assad a message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
On Aug. 21, hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb were killed in what appears to have been a chemical weapons strike, because reports say the victims had no visible injuries but simply died, the hallmark of such a strike. Whether the strike was launched by Assad — or rebels seeking to gain sympathy in a Nazi Reichstag fire type of ruse — is debatable, according to multiple media outlets, but governments including the United States seem to believe the regime was responsible.
Maloney’s statement, sent to the media at 9:30 a.m. but then amended a little more than 10 minutes later, reads in full:
“The use of chemical weapons, especially against a civilian population, is an act of egregious moral depravity that I wholeheartedly condemn. I support the work of the United Nations’ inspectors in Syria and it is essential that the inspectors are given the time and resources they need to thoroughly investigate these reported atrocities.
“While it is clear that the President can and should act to defend our country, it is equally clear that the President should seek Congressional authorization before engaging in military action against Syria. The situation in Syria is extremely complex and uncertain. At this point, we do not know all the facts. Before the U.S. engages in military action, Congress must have the opportunity to examine all of the evidence, consider all of the alternatives, and understand the goals and end point of any use of force.”
The initial version had said “Before we engage in another war in the Middle East ...” instead of “Before the U.S. engages in military action...”
In response to requests from the Queens Chronicle, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Suffolk, Nassau, Queens) issued statements Friday afternoon:
“Assad is a brutal dictator and the deaths of so many from chemical weapons is appalling," Schumer said. "A limited action to knock out his capability of delivering chemical weapons in the future could be appropriate, but we have to be very careful not to let our involvement escalate. America needs to focus on domestic issues such as jobs and the middle class.”
“My heart broke when I saw the horrible images of innocent women and children slaughtered by chemical weapons," Gillibrand said. "This is a heinous and despicable act that cannot be ignored. I expect that the Administration will work with an international coalition to act with a limited, tactical response to make it clear to Bashar al-Assad that this behavior is unacceptable.”
“I am concerned that, unless the international community responds in a unified manner, the Assad regime will be emboldened to widen its use of chemical warfare and further destabilize the region and threaten us," Israel said. "That’s why I believe that, together with our international partners and Syria’s neighbors, a surgical and targeted air strike is needed as long as it is limited to degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and does not involve U.S. ground forces.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn, Queens) said in a press release: “The use of chemical weapons by Syrian leaders is unconscionable, deplorable and must be condemned. However, just as I have forcefully opposed previous military actions, I oppose this one. Before the Administration takes further action, it must seek explicit Congressional authorization as prescribed under the War Powers Act.”
The other members of Congress who represent Queens did not immediately issue statements in response to the Chronicle request.