As Republican leaders signaled Tuesday they will back President Barack Obama's calls for U.S. military action in Syria, Rep. Scott DesJarlais said he's still not convinced.
DesJarlais, who traveled to Washington, D.C., for briefings on the matter over the weekend, said he returned to Tennessee Monday lacking answers and clarity on the issue. In an interview with Nooga.com, the congressman said he opposes a strike and listed a variety of reasons.
"My questions were, what is our plan and what is our endgame?" DesJarlais said. "And is there a direct threat to America and its allies? … I don't think there's any guarantee that this conflict won't escalate, and I think there would absolutely be unintended consequences. I think it's shortsighted to launch a limited strike without expecting it."
In recent weeks, lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Corker, have called for the arming of "vetted, moderate" rebel groups in Syria. DesJarlais opposed the proposal then and went further on Tuesday to suggest that forces in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would ultimately become enemies of the U.S., despite any assistance offered to them.
"In this case, we have enemies fighting our enemies," he said. "There is not a clear opposition group in Syria we could get behind that would be pro-America or have our best interests in mind. In fact, I would argue if any of the opposition could get their hands on chemical weapons that they would use them against the Assad regime."
DesJarlais added that in his view the lack of U.S. reaction to the two-and-a-half-year civil war, including the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad troops, was indicative of the decision facing Congress not being "clear-cut." The congressman said he did not see the chemical attack on Aug. 21—which, according to a U.S. intelligence report, killed 1,429 Syrian civilians in Damascus—as a "seminal moment."
"If there is a mass genocide going on, I think the world will act, but right now, the evidence I've looked at does not indicate that what has happened on Aug. 21 would indicate a need for a U.S. strike over the past year," DesJarlais said. "I don't think there was a seminal moment on Aug. 21 that would mandate an American intervention."
DesJarlais also said that in recent conversations with residents of Tennessee's 4th Congressional District, he had received significant pushback to the idea of America becoming involved in another conflict in the Middle East.
"I have a sense that in my district, probably 80 percent are opposed to a strike in Syria," he said.
The feedback in DesJarlais' district is similar to responses Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who represents Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, said he was receiving. On Tuesday, Fleischmann said that he had not yet decided if he could support military action in Syria, but added that he would base his decision off of input received from constituents.
"So far, the overwhelming opinion of my constituents—and this is subject to change—is to not get involved in a military way in Syria," the congressman said in an interview with Nooga.com. "I'm still listening; I'm still asking people to call in. This is a very important vote, and this is absolutely something that I'm going to continue to do up until the time of the vote—listening to my constituents."
Neither congressman said announcements by House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor supporting Obama's calls for action would sway their votes.
"The speaker and the leader are entitled to their opinion on this," Fleischmann said. "But both of them have told me to vote the way your constituents want you to. This is really no different from the way we approach the entire legislative process—we reach out to our constituencies, and we listen."
Fleischmann applauded Obama's weekend decision to seek authorization on U.S. involvement from Congress, describing the move as "a positive step." Still, the congressman said he had "grave concerns" about what a strike could entail, particularly unanticipated consequences.
"We're in a region of the world that is extremely dangerous," he said. "It is literally a tinderbox, and the unforeseen consequences without a plan or with a plan could lead to an escalation of hostilities we can't control. That gives me pause, hesitancy and concern as I approach this process."
According to a CNN report, at least two other House members from Tennessee—Reps. John Duncan and Marsha Blackburn—are expected to vote no on an authorization for use of military force in Syria next week. All other positions from House lawmakers in Tennessee are currently listed as undecided.