Despite international efforts to bring about a political transition in Syria, violence there has continued to rise. Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District, says it is time for the United States and the world to intervene in the 14-month-long anti-government uprising. The three-term Democrat recently spoke with U.S. News about creating safe zones on Syria's borders and why "sitting it out is not an option." Excerpts:
Has the U.N.-negotiated cease-fire failed?
Well, I don't want to deprecate the purpose of the mission or the legitimate and important effort put behind the mission, but we've seen 500 people killed since the beginning of the mission, so I cannot claim it's been successful.
Why should the United States get involved?
I don't think the United States should intervene alone. I think the United States should intervene with the international community. In fact, Turkey has already said that they would like to set up a safe zone. For them to do it by themselves would be very difficult.
Are there precedents for such safe zones?
There are good examples of international community intervention to protect civilians. I think the Libyan action was a good example of that. And I think that you could significantly argue that the Benghazi area already was a safety zone but that [then Libyan leader Muammar] Qadhafi was attacking it, and the international community needed to protect it.
Would you support airstrikes against the Syrian regime, like the ones in Libya?
I don't want to talk about what I would support, what I want to talk about is people getting murdered, wiped out, raped, tortured, and people being denied access to healthcare and medical attention. And I think that if we set up a safe zone now and the international community stood together, that alone would cause [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad to be very reluctant to attack an internationally supported safe zone designed to protect civilians.
Should the United States arm the Syrian opposition?
I'm not really taking a position on that, I'm worried about innocent civilians at this point. But I will say this, I do think that the safe zone needs to be protected by the international community and that means that if Bashar al-Assad's forces try to attack the safe zone, he should not be allowed to do so with impunity. It should be protected with military means.
Would that lead to military intervention?
I'm not talking about retaliation, I'm talking about defense. So I'm not saying that if the Syrian military attacks the safe zone that the international community should go attack Damascus. They should take tailored and appropriate measures to protect the safe zone.
What's been the administration's approach?
They're trying to resolve this thing with the least amount of pull on U.S. resources, and I think that's wise. But I think that the international community is now at a point where the Arab League has tried to work with Bashar al-Assad, the Turks have tried to work with him, now [former U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan has led an effort to try to come up with a deal to solve this. And at this point, none of them have stopped the killing, so it's time for the world to do something.
Is there congressional support for this?
I'm working on it. There's a general recognition that Assad is bad, that he won't stop unless the world stops him. But the question is what do we do about it. And I think what we need to do is say these are all legitimate questions that need answers, but sitting it out is not an option.