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Four Illinois congressmen attend closed-door briefing on Syria

Sep 2, 2013
In The News

WASHINGTON — The only retired general in Congress, House Democrat Bill Enyart of Belleville, who attended a classified briefing Sunday on potential military strikes against Syria, said the challenge facing the U.S. was to choose “the least bad of our alternatives.”

“There are no good answers,” said Enyart, a retired two-star general who sent thousands of Illinoisans into the fight in Afghanistan in 2008-09 as head of the Illinois National Guard.

“People are going to die if we act. People are going to die if we don’t act,” he said, referring chiefly to Syrians.

Enyart, one of four Illinois congressmen at the extraordinary, closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill, said the U.S. must weigh carefully how its action or inaction will affect the Middle East and its strategic position there. “There are no good answers,” he said. “What we have to do is weigh very carefully all of our alternatives — and pick the least bad of our alternatives.”

The price tag for a U.S. military operation could be as high as $100 million, according to Enyart, who oversaw the largest deployment of Illinois troops since World War II when he ordered the Illinois Guard’s 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan, where it took casualties.

Talking about the use-of-force authorization that Congress will consider, Enyart said: “I have had to order men and women into combat, and I’ve had to bury them when they came home. This is not an intellectual exercise for me.”

Democratic U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley of Chicago, Bill Foster of Naperville and Brad Schneider of Deerfield also attended the briefing.

Congress is on summer recess, with House members returning Sept. 9. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sunday announced it will hold a hearing on Tuesday on the use-of-force authorization.

Quigley called Sunday’s briefing, which drew both senators and representatives, about 90 in all, “very somber, very professional. To the point.”

He said the briefing lasted about an hour, followed by about 90 minutes of questions and answers. He said while the briefers expressed a high degree of certainty about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, he “can’t imagine our country being more war-weary.”

He said he started out as leaning against use of force chiefly out of concerns about who would join a U.S. coalition and the aftermath of military action. He referred to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s caution leading up to the 2003 war in Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

Foster said before the briefing, he spent at least 90 minutes reading the U.S. intelligence community’s classified assessment on Syria’s use of sarin against its people. He pored over documents from an underground, classified briefing room on Capitol Hill after, as required, he surrendered his cellphone. “I’m personally convinced there’s an extremely high probability that the Assad regime, if not (Syrian President Bashar) Assad himself, is responsible for the decision to gas his own people,” he said.

He said he and many members expressed an interest Sunday in limiting the scope of the use-of-force authorization President Barack Obama is seeking “to have it more tightly constrained, not be open-ended in time or in scope of military action.”