published Saturday, June 29th, 2013

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais moves to block Syria aid


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Photo by John Rawlston.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais this week introduced a bill that would prohibit all American military efforts in Syria, defying an odd couple in the process.

The unlikely allies are President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican, former Chattanooga mayor and GOP leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ideological opponents in many ways, Corker and Obama agree that America should continue arming "vetted" Syrian rebels without committing troops to a conflict that already has claimed 100,000 lives. They say the U.S. should identify and empower "moderate" forces so the Middle Eastern nation isn't eventually governed by al-Qaida or other extremists after the fall of President Bashir al-Assad.

But DesJarlais said history favors isolationism. Drawing parallels to Libya and Afghanistan on Thursday, the Jasper Republican said he's wary about arming anyone who might "turn around and shoot us as soon they got the gun in their hands."

"We've lost again and again when we try to aid and assist people who aren't our friends," DesJarlais told Nashville radio host Ralph Bristol.

It's with that confidence that DesJarlais -- the scandal-plagued 4th District congressman with two serious 2014 challengers campaigning back home -- has simultaneously bucked Corker and Obama, joining lawmakers from both parties who see Syria as America's next quagmire.

Corker and his staff are widely respected among Tennessee's congressional delegation. But in interviews, several Volunteer State Republicans in the House happily encouraged DesJarlais on Syria despite the physician-turned-congressman's campaign troubles. (Recently a state board fined him $500 for having sex with two of his patients more than a decade ago.)

"I don't see how you know who to arm," Johnson City's U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said in an interview this week. "I don't know what a moderate rebel is."

  • photo
    President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in this April 30, 2013, file photo. U.S. officials said June 13, 2013, that the Obama administration has concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against the opposition seeking to overthrow him, crossing what Obama called a 'red line'.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

THE BILL

Protecting funds earmarked for "nonlethal humanitarian assistance," DesJarlais' legislation would block any money meant to "inflict serious bodily harm or death" in Syria. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense no longer would receive financing for "military or paramilitary operations," according to the bill.

Top Corker advisers and foreign policy aides said American inaction could lead to disaster down the line.

"Sen. Corker hasn't reviewed the legislation but believes the conflict in Syria poses significant risks for the U.S., particularly if the country falls to extremism," said Todd Womack, Corker's chief of staff. "If we want a better outcome, we need to help shift the balance toward moderate forces who we hope can lead Syria after Assad."

Corker's office said groups must meet "certain criteria on human-rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation" before being labeled "moderate."

White House press secretary Jay Carney recently said the administration has "significantly increased our assistance to the Syrian opposition."

THE POLITICS

Beyond Tennessee, some of DesJarlais' allies are bold-faced names on Capitol Hill. Among the Republican senators sponsoring an identical bill are tea party favorite Mike Lee of Utah and possible 2016 presidential buzz machine Rand Paul of Kentucky. The Democrat sponsors are Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

Corker's backers include 14 of the other 17 senators on the foreign relations panel; a recent 15-3 committee vote recommended arming moderate rebels.

DesJarlais' 2014 opponents, meanwhile, split right down the line when it comes to Syria.

One of those opponents, state Sen. Jim Tracy, defaulted to Corker's position on Syria. The Shelbyville Republican said Corker has access to sensitive committee documents and information "that I don't have and [DesJarlais] doesn't have."

"I think he's playing politics on this subject," Tracy said. "Trying to get his name in the press, trying to get attention."

A DesJarlais aide responded to that charge.

"This is an issue of top concern to Congressman DesJarlais and the people of Tennessee's 4th Congressional District," DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said.

State Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas, DesJarlais' other well-funded GOP opponent, said there are "no good characters" in the Syrian conflict.

"I agree with the congressman's intent," Carr said. "I'm not sure it's the best way to go about it, but he's probably headed in the right direction."

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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