Alaska Delegation Divided on Arming Syrian Rebels to fight ISIL

Congress today approved President Obama’s request to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the terrorist group known as ISIL, but no one in the Alaska delegation was happy about it.

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Alaska Congressman Don Young voted for the measure in the House yesterday, saying it was a tough choice but the only way to stop the atrocities and prevent the group from attacking on U.S. soil.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also voted for it, as part of a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating. She said before the vote she was greatly reluctant and knows Americans are weary of war.

“We don’t willingly want to do this,” she said, “but I think Americans are looking at this and saying, ‘By doing nothing are we putting ourselves at greater risk from these barbaric acts?'”

The bill expires December 11, so Murkowski says Congress will have to face the question again after the election. For now, she says it boils down to selecting among bad options.

“And so I look at what we have in front of us and I see no good options,” she said. “But I’m very fearful of the no-option strategy.”

The issue cuts across normal party and ideological lines. The sole Democrat in the Alaska delegation, Sen. Mark Begich, voted against the bill. In a speech on the Senate floor before the vote, Begich criticized Obama’s plan to arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight extremists, saying it could backfire because alliances often shift.

“Do not arm, with U.S. dollars and weapons, the rebels of today that might not be the rebels of tomorrow,” Begich said.

He says the U.S. should continue air strikes, but he says the Arab countries who are also threatened by ISIL need to provide the ground troops.

“What is the long-term plan here for sustainability in the Middle East to get rid of these terrorist organizations that every single one of those countries know is bad for them – they know it – but they do not step up to the plate enough?” he said.

Begich was one of only 22 senators to vote no. His Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, said in a written statement he would have voted for the measure because ISIL is a threat to the U.S.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz