Ex-Rep. Berkley sits on sidelines as Congress weighs Syrian crisis

WASHINGTON — As Congress ponders the crisis in Syria, Shelley Berkley sits at home in Las Vegas, a former U.S. House member and foreign affairs expert helpless to take part.

“As you can imagine I am very frustrated being sidelined during this very serious debate,” Berkley said Friday. “The Middle East is my passion and area of expertise. I am certain that I would have been in the thick of things had I been serving in the Senate at this time.”

Berkley, a Democrat who represented Las Vegas for seven terms, gave up a safe House seat to run for U.S. Senate last year and lost to Republican Dean Heller.

The gamble ended a 14-year House career, most of which Berkley spent on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

An outspoken supporter of Israel and a defense hawk on matters of the Middle East, Berkley said it would be an easy decision for her to support President Barack Obama’s call to strike at Syria for its reported use of chemical weapons.

“I think the U.S. must act. More than one cruise missile strike,” she said in an interview conducted by email while she spent Rosh Hashana with her family. Anything less “would make the U.S. look weak and foolish.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad “has perpetrated a hideous crime against his own people by gassing civilians. He did cross a line and must be held accountable.”

Berkley said she is constrained from reaching out to former colleagues, including on-the-fence Nevada Democratic Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, because of revolving-door rules that prevent former members from “lobbying” for a year after they leave office.

About 250 activists and Jewish leaders from around the country are expected to fly to Washington this week in a bid to persuade lawmakers to allow a strike on Syria, but Berkley won’t be on the plane.

She said she participates in conference calls organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, “but only as a listener.”

“If (Assad) gets away with using chemical weapons and the U.S. does nothing it will embolden Russia and Iran,” Berkley said. “Very dangerous for U.S. interests in the Middle East and very dangerous for Israel.

“Problem is that there is no easy solution to this crisis,” Berkley said. “It is fraught with peril. No good guys and bad guys. All bad guys.”

She said that rebels fighting Assad “are becoming more extreme with every passing day” and that al-Qaida “is using conflict to get a stronger foothold in the area.”

In August 2011, Berkley urged Obama in a letter to toughen sanctions against Syria after Assad greeted Arab Spring calls for political reforms with brutality and violence.

“No government should be allowed to inflict such suffering on its people without a stern response from the United States and from the broader international community,” said the letter, which was signed by more than 220 lawmakers — including some who now say they expect to vote against a chemical weapons resolution.

Berkley said the Obama administration “has done an awful job in explaining what is at stake to the American people who are war weary and very skeptical of yet another military action.”

“I can understand why Obama felt the need to get congressional approval,” she said. “He has no support from the UN or NATO.

“On the domestic front, if Obama loses this vote it seriously undermines his presidency,” Berkley said. “Having a dramatically weakened presidency is very bad for our country no matter who occupies the White House.

“Bottom line, we cannot allow Assad to use chemical weapons without paying a serious price,” she said. “He used them against his own people. He will not hesitate to use (them) against others.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.