Progressive Caucus Split on Issue of Arming Syrian Rebels

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As a new poll shows most Americans think Obama’s ISIS strategy will fail, activists are challenging Congress to reject military solutions

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: This week, both the House and the Senate passed measures to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against the extremist group ISIS. In the House, 273 members voted in favor of the amendment, and 156 voted against it.

UNIDENTIFIED: The joint resolution is passed.

DESVARIEUX: It’s an issue that has split the Democratic Party, specifically the Progressive Caucus. Out of its 64 voting members in the House, 19 voted in favor of the bill. That includes Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Jim Moran of Virginia, and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. The only senator in the Progressive Caucus, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, voted against the resolution.

BERNIE SANDERS, U.S. SENATOR (I-VT): I worry very much that getting involved in that area could open the door to the United States once again being involved in a quagmire, being involved in perpetual warfare. And what happens when the first American plane gets shot down or the first American soldier is captured? What happens then? Already I am hearing from some of our Republican colleagues, who are already talking about the need for U.S. military boots on the ground. That’s what they’re talking about today. And that concerns me very, very much.

So, Madam President, I am going to vote against this continuing resolution, because I have very little real concerns about the United States getting deeply involved in a war that we should not be deeply involved in. At the end of the day, if this war against this horrendous organization called ISIS is going to be won, it will have to be Saudi Arabia, it will have to be Iraq, it will have to be the people of Syria, it will have to be the people of that region saying, no, we are not going to accept an organization of terrorists like ISIS.

DESVARIEUX: Most Progressive Caucus members agree, like Minnesota congressman Rick Nolan. He voted against the bill, saying he left the Obama administration closed briefings with more questions than answers about arming so-called moderate rebels.

RICK NOLAN, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-MN): But we’ve already been supplying the so-called Free Syrian Army, and most of those weapons, again, are the very ones that end up in the hands of people like ISIS and being used against us.

DESVARIEUX: Democratic Florida congressman Alan Grayson also voted against the bill. He said he would like to see countries from surrounding regions deal with ISIS instead of American forces.

ALAN GRAYSON, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-FL): I wrote letters two weeks ago to ten Arab countries, ten Sunni Arab countries, saying, would you supply 5,000 troops or more in order to fight ISIS?

The Arab troops have an enormous advantage over U.S. forces. They know the language. That’s a really important advantage. They know the terrain. They know what it’s like to operate in a desert country like that. They also know the culture.

Ultimately, and perhaps not so ultimately, ISIS could become a threat to these countries. The Iraqi area that ISIS already controls has a border with Saudi Arabia. Maybe they will start crossing that border.

But the administration doesn’t seem to be interested in doing this. They’re not interested in even proposing it. They’re not interesting in getting the Iraqis to accept that. Instead, they want to do something utterly ineffective, which is bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, and keep your fingers crossed.

DESVARIEUX: Bombing Iraq and Syria is a part of the strategy that Secretary of State John Kerry brought to Congress. He said this policy is in line with Code Pink’s philosophy of protecting women.

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JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Code Pink was started by a woman and women who are opposed to war, but who also thought that the government’s job was to take care of people. And if that’s what you believe in, and I believe it is, then you ought to care about fighting ISIL. Code Pink a lot of other people need to stop and think about how you stop them and deal with that. So–.

UNIDENTIFIED: War and invasion will not protect the homeland. War and invasnion will not protect the homeland. War and invasion will not protect the homeland.

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DESVARIEUX: We spoke with Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin, who says Secretary of State Kerry should be thinking of diplomacy instead of war.

MEDEA BENJAMIN, FOUNDER, CODE PINK: Well, first, Americans should understand that this is insane, that it’s not going to work, that the Syrian army is–the Syrian rebel army is divided into literally hundreds of militias, many of them working with ISIS. In fact, there has been a nonaggression pact among some of them and ISIS. Their main focus is to defeat Assad, not to defeat ISIS.

Now, there’s a lot of congressmen who understand that and know that this doesn’t make any sense. But for them it’s all political. They see the polls. They think the American people want something done and the something must be military. And so, many of them will vote for this just because there’s an election coming up in November and they think this is a good move for them.

But I think the American people need to understand that in the long run, this is totally counterproductive and that they should make their voices heard by their politicians during this election time, so that they don’t drag us into a wider and wider war.

DESVARIEUX: Nearly 70 percent of Americans polled in an NBC News poll don’t think the president’s strategy will stop ISIS. But despite this skepticism, protesters say policy won’t change unless Americans raise their voices.

ARN MENCONI, PROTESTER: I would just hope that the American people realize that democracy is based on being a citizen. I was a public citizen, and now I’m a private citizen. So I took it upon myself to come here from Colorado in order to speak truth to power. That’s how things change. It changes when we speak up about what we think is wrong and to make it right.

DESVARIEUX: As Congress enters a lame-duck session, many members will be in their home districts campaigning. The antiwar protesters say they will be following them on the campaign trail to remind them to look for a political solution instead of a call to arms.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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