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Lawmakers Split on Next Steps After Syria's Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Feinstein on Thursday captured lawmakers’ outrage and ambivalence over Syria when she described the intelligence community’s analysis of Syria’s chemical weapons use as having “medium to high” confidence.

Menendez said he supports working with regional partners, considering establishing a no-fly zone with international support and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of a controlled process.

“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said separately in a written statement.

What isn’t clear is how lawmakers think the administration should go about achieving those objectives, either unilaterally or as part of a larger international effort.

The administration “certainly shouldn’t be ceding this fully to the United Nations because the United Nations does not have a history of being effective here, and obviously Russia and China can block any actions in the United Nations,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “So I believe that we, again, need to be working certainly with those who are trying to help the opposition, because this is going to remain in a stalemate, and ultimately I’ve said from that I would support lethal assistance to the opposition.”

Some lawmakers, while calling for greater U.S. action, had trouble defining exactly what more should be done.

“Well, I think that that gives us an excuse to do some things that perhaps we should have done anyway, in terms of injecting ourselves into it,” Senate Armed Services ranking Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma said Thursday. “I don’t want to say an all-out attack and that sort of thing, but I think that that confirms what we have all thought. It is always easier when you are dealing with something that has been confirmed than just our own personal suspicions.”

Call for Caution

Several Republicans reacted more cautiously to the news.

“I think there is still some of the agencies saying with moderate confidence, some with high confidence,” Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said Thursday. “I think the next step is to make sure that we can look back and know that these samples, that the chain of ownership was appropriate, and we know that it is valid.”

Corker added, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”

Several Democrats also cautioned against a rush to military action.

“I’d rather have one person make that decision than 535 people try to make that decision,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also made clear that he wasn’t ready to support full-scale military intervention.

“I believe Syria’s President Assad must go,” he said in a written statement Thursday. “But I don’t feel it’s in our best interest to go into Syria right now.”

Further debate on a U.S. response was expected Friday after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

A senior White House official said the administration would wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into two suspected cases of chemical weapons use in Syria produced what he called “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment. He gave no indication of when the U.N. probe would announce its conclusions.

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