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Why is Syria any different than Iraq?

This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had its hearings on action or inaction in Syria. Much of what was said was in the predictable category.

Secretary of State John Kerry was taking on the administration’s line about the “red line” and saying, as President Obama did, that the red line was not Obama’s but the world’s. Kerry continued his justification that, if not stopped, there’s 100 percent chance that the chemical weapons would be used again.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that if it isn’t stopped, Hezbollah, which has forces working on the ground to support Assad, would also be able to acquire chemical weapons.

Hagel also said Obama has asked the tough questions before the military concluded that the United States should “take aim” at the military targets the U.S. had identified. He assured Congress that they are working with the military partners in Turkey, Saudi, United Arab Emirates and France, although he conceded that a political solution was the only way to assure an ongoing solution to the crises in Syria.

Much of the back-and-forth between members of Congress was also predictable with the rank-and-file Democrats supporting the president and the left and right wings being skeptical at best.

Chairman Ed Royce said Assad would have to say what happens next while the more left-leaning Brad Sherman said the resolution adds to the War Powers Act. Others brought up the refugees problem that military action would create, and there was more than one reference to the Iraq war and the bill of goods the American people were sold to approve of the war.

Very little creativity in terms of solutions carried the hearings, except for one idea from subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J. In addition to chairing the Africa subcommittee, he also chairs human rights, so his perspective is valuable when it comes to wholesale killing of people as has happened in Syria. Chairman Smith said he was introducing an immediate establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal. His motivation is clear: It is time to hold everyone to account.

Smith’s congressional resolution states: “(The) Government of Syria is reliably reported to have engaged in widespread torture, rape, and massacre of civilians, including by means of chemical weapons, most recently on or about August 21, 2013;

“… other groups involved in civil war in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front, are reliably reported to have engaged in torture, summary execution of government soldiers, kidnapping for ransom, and violence against civilians, including Christians and others who are not Sunni Muslims;

“… these and other actions perpetrated by the Government of Syria and other groups involved in civil war in Syria may constitute mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide;

“… ad hoc tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, have successfully investigated and prosecuted mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, and there are many positive lessons to be learned from these three ad hoc tribunals; and

“Whereas any lasting, peaceful solution to civil war in Syria must be based upon justice for all …”

Chairman Smith pointed out that, to be successful, there must be immunity or plea bargains for the lesser perpetrators to go after the big guys issuing the orders.

Chairman Smith must really know his material, as even the New York Times put on its front page, rebels are executing government troops. Does the U.S. really want to bomb Assad’s weapon stockpiles only to have rebels in power who may not care about the Syrian people’s rights any more than the Assad government does?

Why not begin by ascertaining what is really happening in Syria and making sure that perpetrators of war crimes do not remain in power or replace the powers that are already there? Our choices as a country have not made Iraq safe or friendly to U.S. interests. What makes our leadership think it will be any different in Syria?

Let’s take a page from Chairman Smith’s idea, and know who and what is acting in Syria before we start to act.

Should Congress give Obama authority to attack Syria?

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