Rep. Shuster unsure about Syria

BEDFORD – Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said Tuesday that he’s weighing his vote on a proposed U.S. strike in Syria – but leaning toward “no” – as Congress prepares for a possible decision next week.

Even as Shuster toured Bedford Reinforced Plastics in Bedford Township Tuesday afternoon, the Syrian crisis remained at the forefront, with executives at the composites manufacturer explaining the wide-ranging effects a military strike could have on local industry.

“The president still has to make the case to me,” Shuster said. “At this point I’m still skeptical.”

On Tuesday morning, House Republican leaders Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia announced their support for President Barack Obama’s call to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that allegedly killed more than 1,400 people near the nation’s capital, Damascus.

Some lawmakers in both parties have questioned the plan, which would involve air or missile strikes but avoid direct involvement by U.S. ground troops. Shuster cited concerns that an attack could ultimately help the Islamist militants fighting against Assad’s government.

“There’s no doubt this guy is a murderer, a mass murderer – but I’ve got to have the assurance that, if we bomb him, it won’t weaken him to the point that al-Qaida [gets access to his chemical weapons],” Shuster said. “If they get them, that’s a much bigger problem.”

Shuster pointed to evidence that al-Qaida fighters are among the broad rebel movement that has fought Assad for more than two years. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Shuster said he has recently joined congressional conference calls on Syria and discussed the matter with colleagues responsible for U.S. intelligence.

“Now the bad guys and good guys are all intertwined. Right now, they don’t care who they’re lining up side-by-side with,” he said in a town hall-style meeting with Bedford Reinforced Plastics employees.

Shuster said the proposal’s recent support among some powerful Republicans wouldn’t sway him; only further assurances from the Obama administration would.

Art Halvorson, one of Shuster’s two expected Republican primary challengers for the 2014 election, was more emphatic in his opposition to a strike in comments after Shuster’s factory tour.

“We don’t have any role in Syria. There’s clearly a humanitarian issue, but it’s not anything we’re going to solve by firing missiles into camels,” Halvorson, a Coast Guard veteran and real estate developer living in Manns Choice, said. “Is there a threat to our national interest? No.”

Another challenger, farmer and entrepreneur Travis Schooley of Franklin County, said intervention in a foreign civil war isn’t worth the risk of embroiling the U.S. military in a broader regional conflict.

While employees at the Tuesday meeting questioned Shuster on topics from gun control to the national debt, Bedford Reinforced Plastics executives, including Sales Manager Thomas S. Wright, noted that a Syria strike could swiftly affect work in Pennsylvania.

“This year, we’ve done quite a bit of work in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia,” Wright said. “If we start bombing around there, that could change really fast.”

The company, one of Bedford County’s largest employers, relies on oil and counts the Saudi national energy company among its products’ end users, Wright and General Manager Glenn Smith said.

“We are drastically affected by the cost of oil,” Smith told Shuster. While Syria isn’t a major oil producer, its mounting crisis has reportedly affected prices.

Wright cited a materials supplier that had begun work on a facility in Egypt, only to put the expensive job on hold as the country descended into its own violent political conflict.

Asked about the likelihood that Congress will approve a strike after they return from recess Monday, Shuster said a final yes or no vote appear equally likely.

“I’m leaning ‘no’ right now, but I still want to hear the case,” he said. “I’m going to go back to Washington and keep both ears open.”