EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 8, 2013

Locals split about US involvement

By Douglas Moser, Jill Harmacinski, Mike LaBella and John Toole
Staff writers

---- — David Pellegrino would know a thing or two about the potential and the dangers of military force. The seven-year Air Force veteran, now 50 and a state employee from Boxford, does not think intervention in the Syrian civil war has a clear advantage for America.

“It’s not our national interest. We don’t know who to trust,” he said. “There’s no real plan for after the bombing ... How effective is that going to be? We hit some ammunition sites and then what?” Pellegrino asked.

President Obama pressed his case for American military strikes against the Syrian government Friday, promising to address the public Tuesday night. At least locally, he has quite a climb.

Many local residents remained unconvinced Friday that the United States should attack Syria for its alleged use of sarin nerve gas against civilians in suburban Damascus Aug. 21. The American government has said that 1,400 civilians were killed in the attack, including more than 400 children, and has blamed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack.

Uprisings in Syria beginning in 2011 have ground into a sectarian civil war that United Nations officials estimate has killed more than 100,000.

Residents worried about videos showing brutal executions by Syrian rebels, the infiltration of jihadists and groups affiliated with al Qaida, whether an attack would suck the U.S. into another conflict and whether an American strike would be effective or even make things worse.

Maurice Aguiler, 45, of Lawrence, does not support Obama’s plans for Syria, noting the “horrors” in that country “are being perpetrated on both sides of the conflict.” Aguiler, a Lawrence police sergeant, said evidence of this is in the “endless videos of anti-Assad forces executing unarmed, captured soldiers.”

“We should not intervene on any side of this sectarian atrocity, especially since the factions looking to overthrow Assad are saturated by extremists whose ultimate goals are yet unknown to us,” he said.

Others said the United States already has paid too much for the wars of the past decade.

Dick LeBlond, 76, retired president of The Chicken Connection in Haverhill, seemed ambivalent at best. “It’s pitiful that people are dying over there, and we can’t stand by and watch. But we don’t need another Iraq,” he said.

“If (Obama is) going to push for an attack, just do it. I just don’t want any boots on the ground. I don’t want to waste any American lives.”

Caron Pludra, a Marine Corps veteran from Derry, wants to see diplomacy before military action. “Too many boys and girls are gone,” she said. “It’s too much.”

“Leave it alone,” Noy Chanthavisouk, also of Derry, said. “We already owe a lot of money from two wars. That’s money that could be used to help us at home.”

Salaheddin Momani, a Jordanian-born American citizen, is an author and journalist who writes about Middle Eastern politics and is finishing a doctorate in public policy administration from Walden University. He counts himself among the opposition to the government of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and his blog is banned in Jordan.

He also opposes the Syrian regime, but has too many unanswered questions to back an attack. “I would like to ask the president this question: Isn’t it the same if someone gets killed with a knife as with chemical weapons?” he said. “Over 100,000 are killed, and 1,400 die and now he wants to get revenge or send a message?”

But support is out there. Russ Lawson of Derry said the U.S. should absolutely attack Syria because of what happened. He approved when President Ronald Reagan ordered the military to attack Libya in the 1980s. “We didn’t hear from (late Libyan Col. Muammar) Qaddafi for 20 years,” he said.

“I don’t think we need to be the world’s policeman, but I think we need to take action when those types of atrocities happen,” Lawson said.

An Aug. 29-Sept. 1 poll by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 48 percent of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria, while only 29 percent support it.

Steve Russell, professor of history and government at Northern Essex Community College, doubted that Obama will be able to rally the public to the cause, and may even fail to convince Congress to grant the authorization he requested.

“I don’t think America has the will to support this and I think Obama knows that,” Russell said. “The war hawks, like (Arizona Republican Sen.) John McCain, are saying the president must respond. But what he’s done is throw it back to them and say, get me the votes in Congress.”

“I don’t think they’ll be able to pull it off. Unless something changes in the next few days, I don’t see it as a go.”

In St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, at a conference hosted by one of Syria’s staunchest allies, Obama said he is reluctant to get involved, but that the gassing of more than a thousand civilians cannot be ignored.

“And what I’ve been emphasizing and will continue to stress is that the Assad regime’s brazen use of chemical weapons isn’t just a Syrian tragedy, it’s a threat to global peace and security,” he said.

Immediately after the Aug. 21 chemical attack, the Obama administration began making the case for a limited American strike in Syria, but last weekend abruptly decided to seek Congressional approval for military action even though the president said he does not require it.

Approval from the United Nations is seen as unlikely because of Russia and China’s opposition, and Britain’s Parliament voted last week against committing British troops to a strike.

Obama is in an unusual situation in that he is garnering bipartisan support in Congress for authorization. Aside from McCain, Obama’s 2008 rival, several Republican Senators and two top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, support a strike.

But he also has strong bipartisan opposition from a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans. Passage of the authorization for force is uncertain in the House. Congressional opposition, like that from the public, comes from members of both parties who oppose intervention altogether, do not see how a Syrian war crime is America’s business and from those who think America overextended itself during more than a decade at war in the Middle East and should not risk another conflict.

Locally, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., voted for military action in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, also a Democrat and a member of that committee, did not take a position, voting “present” instead.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has said the U.S. should take action, but as part of a coalition with other nations.

Congresswoman Niki Tsognas, D-Mass., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and said she currently is leaning against approving military force in Syria.

“In the past week I have participated in three briefings to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria with my colleagues in Congress and with designees from the Obama administration, and will attend further classified sessions next week,” Tsongas said Friday in a statement. “I appreciate the President’s commitment to an open dialogue with Congress. However, I continue to have very serious concerns about the consequences, especially those we cannot predict, of United States military action in Syria. At this point, if a vote were held today, I lean toward voting no.”

Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., has said she is opposed to military action and Congressman Annie McLane Kuster, D-N.H., has said she is leaning against military action.

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