Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Sub-Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, opposes providing US arms to Syrian rebel forces because of the growing influence of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda affiliates among them.
“I don’t support giving aid to the rebels,” King said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in his Washington office June 4.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, King explained, “is somewhat of a danger to the region as an evil dictator with weapons of mass destruction. But my concern with the rebels now is that al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda affiliates, the al-Qaeda supporters, are right now in a very strong position within the rebel movement. There are foreign fighters coming from Europe through Turkey and you have jihadists from all over the region coming out to fight. And whether or not they are in the majority, they are the best trained and the best organized.”
King, who also serves on both the House Financial Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, added, “In most ways an al-Qaeda government, or an al-Qaeda supporting government in Syria, is more dangerous to us than Assad is.”
“We know what al-Qaeda would do either against us, or Europe, or Israel,” King said.
King, who is a leader in the House on counterterrorism issues, acknowledged that it is “a terrible situation to be in when there is no one you can support,” given the thousands who are being killed and displaced in Syria.
Asked if the initiative to arm the rebels championed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, including the Syria Transition Support Act, which was reported favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 21, would get much traction in the House of Representatives, King replied, “I really don’t sense much support,” adding, “I can’t think of anyone that has come up to me and has had the same fervor as John McCain has and has said we have to do something.”
“I respect John McCain, I supported him for president back in 2000. He is a friend of mine. On this issue, I am just not as certain as he is that we would have, not just control, it is not our job to have control, but that we would have any restraints at all over the rebels when they took over, if they ended up being dominated by al-Qaeda supporters,” King said.
King is concerned about the plight of Christians in Syria, who are being targeted in Syria and “could suffer the most” from the war.
King is not optimistic about the proposed Geneva II conference especially as Russia, the co-sponsor of the proposed meeting, backs Assad.
“There is no harm in pursuing diplomacy. I wouldn’t get tied into any major conference though until we have some idea of what the ground rules are going to be and where it is going to end up not just go in and try to roll the dice,” King said.
King criticized the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, including toward Israel and Iran, which he described as early on conveying a “false equivalency” which has unnecessarily placed the US on defense in the region.
“The president reaching out to the Muslim world, implying that until then somehow we had been anti-Muslim, it was just to me, it put the US in defensive posture,” King said.
“Then [Obama’s] very critical attitude toward Israel in the first several years sent a very wrong signal both to neutral countries and to potential allies in the Middle East and also sent the wrong signal to Iran.”
“I don’t see anything at all positive when it comes to Iran,” King said. “To me it only gets worse: Iran’s conduct in the Middle East, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Iran’s support of terrorism, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Iran attempting to insert itself in Iraq, playing a role in Syria and basically being a destabilizing force in the Middle East.”
King said that Iran might stop just short of a nuclear-weapons capability to prevent a US or Israeli attack, adding, “I don’t think we should be dissuaded by that.”
King is a co-sponsor of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act in the House of Representatives and supports even tougher sanctions on Iran.
“To me, whatever sanctions we can impose on Iran, whatever we can do to weaken their position and hopefully to awaken some sort of opposition within the country, then to me that is the only alternative that we have right now,” King said. “And again, when I say the only alternative, that is the only non-military we have, I think that we should keep all our military options on the table, both for us and I think that also Israel should be able to keep all its options on the table.”
King, who is serving his 11th term representing the 2nd district of New York, was pessimistic about the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the peace process.
“I think that until the Palestinians make a decision that they really want to have a constructive peace agreement, then we are not going to have one,” King said.
The Republican congressman said, “Egypt certainly has not gone in the right direction in the last two years. People felt that with the Arab Spring they were going to see a whole birth or rebirth of human freedoms and advancement, liberal government in the traditional sense of the word and instead we have seen the Muslim Brotherhood, which isn’t even that competent.”
Despite his opposition to aiding Syrian rebel forces, King nonetheless supports a robust US engagement in the Middle East.
“There is no other country in the world that is able to fill that vacuum in the Middle East if we should pull out except maybe the Russians, and we don’t want that, and the Chinese, and we don’t want that,” King said. “So we have to realize that we are going to have a presence whether it is diplomatic, whether it is intelligence-wise, whether it is economic to some extent, and I think military to some extent. We have to continue to play a role in the Middle East, not even just for the good of the countries [there]. Forgetting our relationship with Israel, forgetting our relationship with Jordan, forgetting everything else, for our own self-interest, we can’t continue to lose influence in the Middle East and it not have consequences.”
King recalled his first trip to the region as a member of Congress:
“The first overseas trip I took, the first significant one, was to Israel in August 1993 and the day I arrived, and this was unbeknownst to anyone, just a coincidence, was the day that [then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres and [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat reached the agreement in Oslo. So I feel that I got here and my first day in Israel, everything is resolved. A few weeks later Arafat and [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin are on the front lawn of the White House shaking hands and I feel that the Middle East is behind us, we can worry about all of the other issues in the world,” King said.
“Here it is almost 20 years later, and it is as bad as it ever was in many ways.”
Andrew Parasiliti is editor & CEO of Al-Monitor.