Hawaii legislators offer thoughts on Syria

WAILEA – Three members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation urged caution before the United States becomes entangled in Syria’s civil war, where at least 100 civilians died recently outside Damascus in an apparent chemical weapons attack.

“It’s a civil war,” U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said Saturday at a reception before the Maui Economic Development Board’s Ke Alahele Education Fund Dinner and Auction at the Grand Wailea. “I think that’s the problem that we’ve had in the past (with other Mideast conflicts). We’ve never understood what is the war.”

“We don’t want to see people killed. No question,” said Hanabusa, who represents urban Oahu. “That is not what we want to see happen anywhere in the world. But this military intervention of the United States . . . I think we need to have a very clear discussion about what are the objectives in intervening and what is it that we intend to accomplish as a result of it.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said: “I know the secretary of defense and the president are weighing their options very seriously. There is a humanitarian crisis ongoing that could get worse.

“We ought to move methodically,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who represents rural Oahu and Neighbor Island residents, referred to recent statements on Syria by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In comments to Congress about his assessment that there are no moderate rebel groups ready to fill a power vacuum, Dempsey said: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing among many sides.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Gabbard said Dempsey’s comments are “very important” to recognize because there needs to be “the ability to know the true facts about what’s happening in Syria. It is not very clear.”

She said she understands President Barack Obama’s administration is working to get independent verification from “people on the ground, people from the United Nations to say who is exactly using these chemical weapons because both sides are making accusations against each other.”

Also, Gabbard said: “We don’t know who the rebel forces are made up of. . . . We don’t know exactly who we’re arming, if we’re looking at al-Qaida factions who are now involved in fighting alongside the rebel forces.”

Gabbard said that she’s also concerned about the unintended consequences of U.S. involvement in another Mideast conflict, especially if it were done unilaterally, “without other international allies and alliances collectively and collaboratively taking action there.”

“I am not supportive of the United States actively getting involved in this conflict at this time,” she said.

Hanabusa said that if the U.S. takes any steps, its involvement would be similar to its actions in Libya.

“I don’t see intervention in terms of boots on the ground,” she said.

Hanabusa said that she thinks the United States might use air strikes to target areas where there are chemical weapons.

“That’s my guess,” she said.

Over the weekend, there were reports that U.S. naval forces were moving closer to Syria with the president considering military options to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria by the government of Bashar Assad.

According to reports last week, a chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus killed at least 100 people. If true, it would be the most egregious use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.