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Lawmakers ponder role for U.S. in Syria

 

A bipartisan slate of political leaders pondered what role the United States should play in Syria following indications that its besieged leader used chemical weapons in that country's civil war. 

Following the Obama administration's declaration this week that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against rebels looking to unseat him, lawmakers pondered how to best respond. President Barack Obama had previously called the use of such weapons a "red line" that would prompt a response from the United States.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visits Meet the Press to discuss the recent uprising in Syria and the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the president to begin identifying a strategy to secure Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons should the government fall.

"Be prepared with an international force to go in and secure these stocks of chemical, and perhaps biological, weapons," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But, mindful of Americans' war-weariness following nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain cautioned against sending U.S. troops to Syria, warning that it could prompt resentment from Syrians. 

The Arizona senator said in the meanwhile that Obama could establish a no-fly zone in Syria without endangering any U.S. troops. And McCain also called for Obama to further arm rebel groups. 

The White House has been more cautious, explaining this week in briefings to lawmakers that evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria is still preliminary, and the government would take more time to gather intelligence. 

"To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law.  And that is going to be a game changer," Obama said Friday before meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

"We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately," the president added. "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."

The administration's caution reflects the difficulty in navigating the situation in Syria. A key concern involves identifying which rebels to arm in Syria, and whether there is a risk of those arms being turned back agains the U.S. in the future. 

"My concern is that al Qaeda has more influence among the rebels than it should," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a key lawmaker who serves on intelligence and homeland security panels. 

But even beyond the national security implications, some lawmakers have said there might be humanitarian justifications to act in Syria.

"I think the United States could play a bigger role in dealing with the humanitarian crisis," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslim members of Congress. "I don't think the world's greatest super power, the United States, can stand by and do nothing."

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