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Senators: Syria Chemical Weapons Warrant Action

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian opposition fighters stand on mat drawings of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, and his late father, Hafez, in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, close to the Turkish border.

Calls for a tougher U.S. policy against Syria intensified Thursday as a bipartisan group of senators urged President Barack Obama to threaten regime-toppling military action if President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels trying to drive him from power.

Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.; and Chris Coons, D-Del., cited recent media reports about intelligence suggesting Syrian troops had mixed precursor chemicals for a deadly nerve gas and that the weapons might be loaded into bombs and artillery shells for use in the fighting.

The lawmakers also called on Obama to launch pre-emptive military action if the administration received “hard intelligence” of an Assad decision to actually use the chemical weapons.

“The time for talking about what to do may now be coming to a close,” said McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who has led the effort on Capitol Hill to arm the Syrian rebels since their insurgency began nearly two years ago.

He said the administration now has to decide “whether to continue on the sidelines and hope that a man who has slaughtered nearly 40,000 men, women and children in Syria will decide not to take the next step and use far more destructive weapons to kill significantly larger numbers of people, or whether to take military action of some kind that could prevent a mass atrocity. That is the choice we now face.”

Graham said he was preparing a resolution authorizing the use of force to prevent Assad from using weapons of mass destruction against the insurgents.

“If he does, it would be the end of his regime,” Lieberman said.

Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and NATO leaders have warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be met with a strong international response, but none has specified what the United States and its allies would do in the event such weapons were used.

“I don’t want to pre-suppose what the president is going to do with the Cabinet, but I think what must be understood is that the use of those weapons is for us a qualitatively different situation and frankly countries in the region also view it that way,” Robert S. Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Thursday at a forum hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “And so it will change our calculations in a fundamental way, change completely the approach to the Syrian problem.”

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