WASHINGTON — Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could be a greater threat after that nation’s president leaves power and could end up targeting Americans at home, lawmakers warned Sunday as they considered a U.S. response that stops short of sending military forces there.
U.S. officials last week declared that the Syrian government probably had used the agent sarin twice in March, newly provocative acts in the 2-year-old civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
The U.S. assessment followed similar conclusions from Britain, France, Israel and Qatar — key allies eager for a more aggressive response to the Syrian conflict.
President Obama has said Syria’s likely action — or the transfer of President Bashar Assad’s stockpiles to terrorists — would cross a “red line” that would compel the United States to act.
Lawmakers sought to remind viewers of Sunday television-news programs of Obama’s declaration while discouraging a U.S. foothold on the ground there.
Lawmakers in both parties urged Obama to take stronger action, with some Republicans calling for him to arm rebel troops and possibly establish a no-fly zone, and some Democrats urging the administration to step up humanitarian assistance.
“The president has laid down the line, and it can’t be a dotted line. It can’t be anything other than a red line,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. “And more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this.”
Added Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: “For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake.”
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, Republicans who tend to see eye to eye on national security matters, both said they opposed putting “boots on the ground” in Syria.
McCain, who has called for establishing a no-fly zone to neutralize Syria’s air defenses, told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria — that would turn the people against us.”
Graham, in particular, criticized the administration for what he characterized as an overly cautious response, providing only nonlethal aid to rebel forces.
He warned that inaction in Syria would have dire consequences across the Middle East, by sending a message to Iran that the U.S. will tolerate a nuclear buildup in that country.
“If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action towards Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program,” Graham said.
He added, “There’s nothing you can do in Syria without risk, but greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists, and they’re pouring into Syria.”
So far the United States has taken limited military steps in Syria, and has confined U.S. assistance to nonlethal aid — providing equipment like night vision goggles and body armor — for the rebels fighting the Assad government.
Democrats speaking on the Sunday shows, including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, seemed less inclined to step up military aid and more focused on providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians.
“I believe the United States could play a greater role in dealing with the humanitarian crisis,” Ellison said on “Meet the Press.” “We have spillage and refugees in Jordan, in Lebanon, and internally displaced people in Syria. The suffering is intense, and I don’t think the world’s greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and not do anything.”