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Erik Burgess, Published September 06 2013

Heitkamp floats diplomatic alternative to military action in Syria

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is proposing a diplomatic alternative to military action in Syria, where the government of President Bashar -Assad is believed to have attacked its own people with chemical weapons.

Heitkamp’s proposal, drafted with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would give Assad 45 days to sign onto the international ban on chemical weapons. Syria is one of five countries that haven’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention accord, which went into effect in 1997.

Heitkamp said Friday she thinks more options need to be on the table before the United States moves into an immediate military strike in Syria.

She said the world would be a “much sorrier place” if only military responses were considered viable for dealing with a conflict like this.

“We aren’t ruling out in the future some other kind of activity or some other kind of response, but I think right now, as the American people deliberate with Congress and with the president, I think they’re looking for an alternative,” she said.

The Senate could vote on whether to take military action in Syria as early as next week, a resolution Heitkamp said she would vote against.

Several U.S. Senate and House leaders have signaled support for using force in Syria, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Heitkamp said working with Assad to sign the chemical weapons ban would bring into the conversation all the countries that have already signed the accord, considered to be 98 percent of the globe.

“The entire international community needs to engage in this,” she said. “This is a crime against humanity and more than the United States needs to weigh in and participate in putting that kind of pressure on [Assad].”

Heitkamp spent this week in Washington, D.C., receiving briefings on Syria, including one on Thursday from Vice President Joe Biden in the White House.

She said her proposal doesn’t eliminate a possible military strike in the future.

“I reject the notion that this is capitulation,” she said. “I think that what we’re basically saying is that this is an opportunity to try a different path.”

Heitkamp said it’s likely the Senate will debate the country’s options next week. She said “it remains to be seen” if there’s majority support for a strike on Syria, despite the support from party leaders.

She said the House is going through a similar process.

President Obama has insisted he has the right to launch a strike regardless of whether or not Congress approves.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518