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January 23, 2018

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Sen. Harry Reid warns against rushing to arm Syrian rebels

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

WASHINGTON — Add Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid to the list of lawmakers who think Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has crossed the so-called “red line” of using chemical weapons against his people.

But unlike others in Congress, he’s not particularly gung-ho to see the United States arming the Syrian rebels.

“My personal feeling is that the evidence shows that [Assad] has used chemical weapons. But remember, we have been through this before,” Reid warned, recalling the run-up to the Iraq war a decade ago. “The yellow cake [uranium], remember that? There was a rush to judgment and a war; that was one of the reasons we rushed to war.”

Republican Sen. John McCain has been leading a cadre of members of Congress pressuring President Barack Obama to arm the Syrian rebel groups attempting to overthrow al-Assad, citing U.S. and other intelligence that the government had used sarin gas, which attacks the nervous system, against Syrian civilians.

That message was gaining steam but got jumbled over the weekend, when United Nations inspector Carla del Ponte said there was evidence Syrian rebels had used sarin gas.

While the U.N. maintains that its investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria is so far inconclusive, the competing claims highlight two important subtleties about the Syrian conflict: First, that there may be good reason to worry about the security, as well as the potential for use, of the government’s vast chemical weapons stores; and second, that infiltration of outside groups and extremists into the Syrian conflict has made the challenge of determining which if any rebel groups are trustworthy enough to arm is a daunting one.

In August, Obama — who had already long been calling on al-Assad to step aside — said evidence of chemical weapons use would be a “red line.”

A recent New York Times investigation suggested the line was delivered as rhetoric and not a statement of policy; nonetheless, it has been the measure against which Americans and foreigners urging intervention in Syria have sought to pressure the U.S. president into action.

The pressure is coming in legislative form as well: Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, recently introduced legislation to arm the Syrian rebels.

Reid chuckled Tuesday when asked whether he would help Menendez shepherd his bill through the political process, remarking that there are “a lot of bills” he would bring up for a vote in a more compliant Congress.

But Reid really does not seem to be in a rush to arm the rebels.

“I have no problem with the caution being shown by the military and the president in this regard,” he said.

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