Rep. Scott Rigell (R., Va.) on Monday night told constituents overwhelmingly opposed to military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he would vote no on the measure, underscoring the uphill battle President Barack Obama faces in convincing many skeptical members of Congress.
Obama will address the nation tonight from the White House at 9 p.m. in what was originally intended to be a push for congressional authorization of limited strikes in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks U.S. intelligence analysts say were perpetrated by Assad last month and killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
Yet the president will now likely also discuss a Russian plan to force Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the international community and dismantle them, a proposal that gained traction Tuesday as French officials said they would propose a resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
"I am encouraged by this third alternative advanced by both the U.S. and the Russians that the international community would take control of the weapons and that would lead to their destruction," Rigell told participants in a tele-town hall.
"I’m encouraged, but I’m also realistic about Russia. They’re a difficult partner to work with."
Obama borrowed a phrase from former President Ronald Reagan Monday telling Fox News that U.S. officials would have to not only "trust" the Russians but also "verify" that they would in fact pressure Assad to relinquish the chemical weapons. The Russians have repeatedly blocked efforts by the U.N. Security Council to respond to the chemical weapons attacks and have backed Assad with an eye on their gas profits and assets in the region.
Participants in the town hall, some veterans and family members of deceased veterans, expressed slight optimism about the Russian proposal but mostly said they were weary of entering another conflict after more than a decade of wars in the Middle East.
They also said they felt deceived by U.S. leaders who had not considered the potential repercussions of strikes in Syria, such as retaliation from Assad’s Russian or Iranian allies, and questioned who would assume control of the chemical weapons.
A poll at the end of the town hall found that 85 percent of participants opposed the strikes, six percent supported them, and nine percent needed more information.
"The America we have today is not the America we had where we could depend on our leaders and military to tell us where we stand and make reliable decisions," said a man who identified himself as Bill. "Can we really believe what they are telling us?"
Rigell said there is a concern of retaliatory attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities such as the embassy in Beirut and that many members of Congress remain undecided on the aftermath of military action.
"Every briefing I go to, most members are still working through that—does a strike help us contain chemical weapons or does it actually make it worse?" Rigell said.
"I’ve heard a lot. I’d vote no at this point."
USA Today reported that only 22 members each in the House and Senate—out of 533 total lawmakers—currently support military action in Syria. Congressional votes will likely be delayed as the Russian proposal is discussed.
One of Rigell’s constituents, a man who identified himself as Jeff, said he felt the "element of surprise" is gone with regard to the proposed strikes and asked why U.S. leaders had not ordered more robust aid and arms to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
Expert opinion on the FSA is mixed.
Some experts have said they believe the rebels opposing Assad are actively fighting with the al Qaeda-linked groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Others argued that the jihadist groups are confined to regions of northern Syria and are more concerned with instituting Sharia law.
A spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition cast doubt on the notion that Assad would abdicate his chemical weapons and lobbied for strikes as the FSA made plans to consolidate control over certain areas, provide protection to civilians, and encourage military defections, according to reports Tuesday.
Rigell said it was "difficult" for the United States to "discern who to help and how to help them."
"I’m really open to [arming the FSA]," he said before hesitating. "But really that’s also problematic too."