April 27 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers are pressing President Barack Obama to act against Syria’s regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons, with no agreement over what to do among options filled with uncertainty and risk.
Demands have ranged from Republican Senator John McCain’s push to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to Syria’s opposition to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s call to take the matter to the United Nations.
“There’s no good option, at least that I’ve seen,” Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing this weekend.
Debate over Syria was given new impetus by the administration’s disclosure on April 25 that intelligence agencies assess with “varying degrees of confidence” that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chemical munitions on a small scale in two instances.
Obama said yesterday that the intelligence must be corroborated while reiterating that confirmation would be a “game-changer” for the U.S.
“There are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used,” Obama said. “We have to make these assessments deliberately, but I think all of us -- not just in the United States, but around the world -- recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.”
In the Syrian government’s first response to the U.S. findings, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said “the fabricated and false” allegations “do not have any credibility,” according to the official Sana news agency. The regime has said that chemical weapons have been used by terrorists, its blanket description for the opposition.
Obama has never said what action he would take if Syria crossed what he’s called a “red line” against the use of toxic agents.
McCain, of Arizona, renewed what he called a two-year effort to persuade the administration “to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to people in the resistance whom we trust.”
Representative Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican member of the House intelligence committee, disagreed and echoed the administration’s concern that funneling arms into the volatile region may backfire.
“The easy thing would be to help the rebels, but the reality of the situation is” that many of them are “the people we have been fighting for the last 10 years,” he said in an interview, referring to groups of Islamic extremists associated with al-Qaeda. “We should be very careful how we proceed.”
Until now, the administration has provided non-lethal aid, such as communications equipment, and humanitarian supplies to the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the U.S. is providing an additional $123 million to the Syrian opposition, a doubling of aid, while some Persian Gulf nations send arms as well as money.
At a classified briefing yesterday for members of the House, Kerry gave no indication about when or if the U.S. will act on the chemical weapons finding, according to Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican.
Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, said Kerry described a range of potential steps.
“It’s everything from diplomatic opposition to Assad, to supporting refugees, to cash for groups, to weapons for groups, to a no-fly zone,” Sherman said. “All of those are on the table.”
Sherman said a no-fly zone “is not a no-casualty option” because Syria’s anti-missile and anti-aircraft defenses are more sophisticated than those allied forces confronted in taking such a step in Iraq and Libya.
Intervening to seize Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons would require as many as 75,000 troops, Jeremy Sharp and Christopher Blanchard of the Congressional Research Service wrote in an April 22 report.
“We’re not going to put 75,000 boots on the ground,” Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said yesterday on MSNBC’s “Jansing and Co.” “Will we go in and bomb? Well, what do you bomb? Do you bomb the planes that have the sarin on it so you get a plume, and then the wind carries it?”
Feinstein, a Californian and chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, called on the UN Security Council to take “meaningful action” to end the Syrian crisis.
“It is clear that ‘red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use” of chemical weapons, Feinstein said in a statement.
Russia, with military and economic ties to Syria, has blocked more aggressive action by the UN.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he was “deeply concerned” that further confirmation of chemical weapons use “may be outsourced” to the world body.
Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, who is leading a UN fact-finding mission that has been denied access to Syria to investigate whether chemical weapons were used, will meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on April 29.
Sellstrom’s team has been stranded in Cyprus, unable to gain permission to enter Syria to investigate two sites, in Aleppo and Homs. About a dozen letters have been sent to Syrian authorities in a protracted exchange that hasn’t yielded access, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity about the diplomatic communications.
For Obama, the challenge remains what to do if the administration comes to the conclusion that his “red line” has been crossed.
“He doesn’t want to get involved in another war in the Middle East,” said Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The question is, when you set a red line, do you stand behind it?”
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