Not for the first time, Albuquerque residents raised placards and took to the streets against military intervention in Syria. This time, they rallied outside a United States senator’s office.
Protesters gathered outside the office of New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich downtown early Tuesday morning to criticize Heinrich’s support for U.S. military intervention in the two-year Syrian civil war.
Sayrah Namaste, a member of the American Friends Service Committee that organized the event, said Heinrich is misrepresenting New Mexicans by supporting military intervention.
“He talked about looking at the eyes of his children with pride that he will go kill other children,” Namaste said. “It’s sickening to me. I’m a mother — I’d look at the eyes of my daughter. Since she’s been alive … she’s never known how it is to be at war. I see a child who wants us not to go to war.”
Talks of military intervention in Syria started among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council two weeks ago, after the U.N. started an investigation into Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons against rebel forces. The five permanent members of the Security Council are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
On Aug. 29, the British Parliament rejected U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal for military intervention in Syria. That day, Russia and China officially recorded their support for Assad.
But on Aug. 31, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that although he was willing and ready to initiate a military strike against Syria, he would seek the U.S. Congress’ views on the matter first. He said he planned to seek a Congressional vote on the planned intervention after Labor Day.
According to French news agency Agence France-Presse, French President François Hollande said on Aug. 31 that he “has felt the same resolution beside Obama” and that he has decided that France will serve as America’s principal ally in the proposed operation.
Namaste said Albuquerque activists have met with members of Heinrich’s office in the last week to express their opposition to intervention. But she said the senator has brushed their opinions aside.
“We’ve had two meetings with Heinrich’s office about why we’re opposed,” she said. “We know that the majority of his constituents are opposed. His statement was very offensive; he’s not representing his constituents. This is not about a popularity contest, it’s about democracy.”
Heinrich issued his official stance on intervention in a letter addressed to his constituents released Monday night. Heinrich said his support for military intervention “is the most difficult (decision) I have experienced in my more than eight years in public office.”
“I have always believed that my decisions in public office should reflect my best judgment and what I believe to be the best course for our nation,” he said in the letter. “Just as importantly, it means that I can look my children in the eye and explain my positions with honesty, never having to explain why a vote was the result of politics or pressure. Today, I am taking a position that I believe is in line with those values. “
As part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Heinrich said he has been briefed on Syria’s civil war for eight months now. He said the U.S. government is sure that Assad carried out the alleged chemical attack against rebel forces on Aug. 21.
The chemical attack, if dismissed, will become “part of a long and predictable pattern of behavior” by Assad, Heinrich said, making U.S. military intervention in Syria essential.
“I believe that when any country chooses to ignore the international norms against chemical weapons, they have made a deeply immoral decision with worldwide implications, implications that the United States and the international community cannot ignore,” he said. “This is not Iraq, and we have a moral obligation to deter Assad and every regime watching him.”
But Heinrich said he will “continue to support additional foreign aid to alleviate the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria and neighboring countries.”
Heinrich said he hopes his and Obama’s stance on the war will “send a message to Bashar Al-Assad.” Still, he said the U.S. should not get involved “directly” in Syria’s civil war.
“I remain of the belief that as a nation, we cannot become directly entangled in a civil war that we do not fully understand,” he said. “It is for this reason that I do not think we should arm the Syrian rebels and I do not support sending American troops into this conflict.”
Namaste said she organized the protest Monday night immediately after she received Heinrich’s letter. About 15 people stood with her at the event.
“He needs to change his status,” she said. “Other Democratic senators are taking back being in favor. Russia is negotiating with Syria. There’s diplomacy happening. Why would he take an aggressive stance when diplomacy is happening?”
And the partisan environment of the Senate does not help to prevent intervention, Namaste said.
“Democrats don’t know what to do,” she said. “They have their party telling them what to do, but they have their constituents that they’re supposed to represent saying something else. I’m glad there hasn’t been a vote yet.”
According to an article by the Washington Post, 29 senators have already voted against military action, and 23 have voted for it as of press time. Among 48 other senators who have not yet voted, nine lean toward voting no.
On the other hand, 149 members of the House of Representatives have already voted against intervention, and 26 have voted for it, as of press time. Out of 258 representatives who have not yet voted, 102 lean toward voting no.
UNM student Lissie Perkal said that, as a person who has worked in child care, she feels appalled by Heinrich’s stance. She said attacking Syria would kill civilians.
“It seems like it’s for political gain and not actually because he thinks it’s the best decision,” she said. “I’m demanding accountability. I want him to know that he would not get away with it. He needs to be responsible and needs to be held responsible for the lives of Syrians.”
Instead, Perkal said she urges the government to address the refugee problem in the country. She said that at the moment, there are more than 1 million Syrian refugees.
And she said Heinrich should prioritize the U.S.’s national problems, such as education and health care, before making additional ones abroad.
“Tuition just went up, and a lot of my friends couldn’t even afford to go to school now,” she said. “I’m here struggling just to follow through on our access to education, and Heinrich is there talking about military intervention in Syria.”
Although Perkal said she is not optimistic that Heinrich would change his mind, she said she is “confident that this would send a message.”
On the contrary, Namaste said she expects to see the U.S. military to stay within its bounds and to not follow through with intervention.
“Obama seems to be backpedalling,” she said. “I think there’s a chance we won’t go.”
Congress started to discuss the possible intervention when it returned to Washington, D.C. Monday, and may vote on it in the next two weeks.
There is no exact voting date as of press time, as President Obama delayed the Congressional vote in a speech Tuesday evening.