Rahall outlines stance in support of missile strike
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In 2003, Rep. Nick Rahall was optimistic and hopeful after meeting in Damascus with new Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Joined by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, Rahall, D-W.Va., spoke with Assad about accusations Syria was sponsoring terrorism and helping members of the deposed regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"(Assad) shares concerns and interests with America in this part of the world and wants to pursue in the right direction what we all want to see — peace, a nuclear and chemical weapons-free area and the advancement of the peace process," Rahall told reporters at the time.
Recent accusations that Assad's regime used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war contradict that assessment.
Much has changed since Rahall's visits, the congressman said Tuesday in a phone interview.
"In that first meeting with him, he, of course was new, there was a great deal of hope for the new president," Rahall said. "He wanted to bill himself as a reformer: domestically, economically, politically and democratically."
Assad took over as leader of Syria in 2000, when his father, Hafez Assad, died. Rahall said he also met many times with the elder Assad, and thought the new leader had the potential to instill positive change.
In December 2003, Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003. The act had several purposes, among them holding Syria accountable for "serious international security problems."
The act also states Congress knew Syria was trying to develop chemical weapons and its acquisition of "weapons of mass destruction" posed a national security threat.
Rahall was one of four representatives to vote against the measure. Rahall, who is of Lebanese descent, said Tuesday he thought other aspects of the legislation would hurt Lebanon. He again emphasized Assad's promises made him hopeful for positive reform.
Rahall faced heat in 2007 for traveling to Syria to meet with Assad. The administration of then-President George W. Bush criticized Rahall and the rest of the seven-member bipartisan delegation that made the trip, according to Daily Mail archives.
At the time, Rahall said the Bush administration was trying to ignite a war with Iran, a Syrian ally. Tuesday, Rahall said Bush spoke with him and others who met with Assad after the trip to learn more about the leader.
Rahall said Tuesday Assad and his regime have failed to live up to his hopes.
"It's clear now, in the ensuing years, that none of those reforms lasted and/or came to pass," Rahall said.
"It's also clear, as any observer can see, that the old inner-guard, inner circle that was controlled by his father is now controlling the son and put the big brakes on his ideas for reform and change . . ."
Rahall supports President Barack Obama's call for a potential targeted missile strike against the Assad regime. While there is still no national consensus as to what should be done about the use of chemical weapons, many lawmakers have spoken out against U.S. military action.
There are discussions of a potential deal where Syria would relinquish its stockpile of chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Echoing Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Rahall said any diplomatic solution that might be reached only came as a result of the threat of a U.S. missile strike.
The plan potentially involves a great deal of action by Syrian-ally Russia. Rahall, along with many others in Congress, was skeptical Russia and Syria would live up to a promise concerning Syrian chemical weapons.
"I think it still has to hang over their heads, yes. I think that's why we are getting, possibly, to a diplomatic solution, is because of this threat for a military strike," Rahall said.
"And I believe also that we cannot withdraw this threat until we have a verifiable deletion of all chemical weapons (in Syria)," Rahall said.
Rahall is the only member of West Virginia's national delegation to vocally support a potential missile strike. State Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, a potential congressional challenger to Rahall next year, criticized Rahall's position.
Rahall said Jenkins was trying to politicize a serious military issue.
Although other members of the national delegation have said they do not support a missile strike, some have supported actions condemning Syria's possession of chemical weapons in the past.
The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 passed Congress with nearly unanimous support. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., both voted in support of it.
Then-Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was one of the few senators to vote against the bill.
On two other occasions Capito has co-sponsored legislation that called for greater U.S. involvement in Syria.
In 2007 and 2009, she co-sponsored the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act. The two pieces of legislation were similar in their calls for increased economic sanctions against Syria.
Both also pledged U.S. support to independent groups that would dismantle Syria's chemical weapons during a transition to an internationally recognized democratic government.
Neither bill called for U.S. military action, and neither came close to becoming law.
Monday, Capito announced she did not support a missile strike in Syria. Capito spokeswoman Lisa Boothe said the congresswoman has been consistent in her opposition to military action in the country.
Her support of the previous legislation was intended to isolate Syria through economic sanctions and "block the regime's use of chemical weapons," Boothe said in an email.
Fellow Republican Rep. David McKinley was not in Congress at the time the legislation was introduced. In 2011 though, he co-sponsored the Syria Freedom Support Act. The act called for actions very similar to those outlined in the two bills Capito co-sponsored.
McKinley has repeatedly said he doesn't support a strike. A spokesman did not return a request for comment Tuesday as to why he supported the 2011 legislation.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also opposes a strike. He is pushing a plan, created with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that would call on Syria to quickly sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.
During that time, the Obama administration would need to come up with a detailed plan for a course of action if Syria did not sign the convention.
The convention prohibits the production, stockpile, transfer or use of chemical weapons. Close to 200 countries have signed. It closes "loopholes" in the Geneva Convention — which also prohibits the use of chemical weapons and was signed by Syria — Manchin said Tuesday in a Senate floor speech.
Rockefeller, who previously led the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hasn't said whether he would support a missile strike in Syria. During a recent event he briefly discussed his decision making process.
"I've been to Syria many times. I've met with Assad a number of times, and I know the intelligence about them very, very well," Rockefeller told the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
"It's a careful decision because of two parts: If we do something, what risk do we run? If we don't do something, what risk do we run?"
Rockefeller said last week he planned to announce his decision on a potential missile strike Monday or Tuesday. A spokesman said Tuesday afternoon the fluid nature of the situation necessitated more time for the senator to decide.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.