The Senate voted Tuesday to order President Obama to study what military options the U.S. would have if it wanted to get more deeply involved in the revolt against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Backers said it was meant to be a "reasonable assessment" of what U.S. forces can do to degrade Mr. Assad's air power, but opponents said the study would mark a first step toward the kind of "no-fly zone" Mr. Obama imposed on Libya two years ago.
"This amendment is simply a way of saying we in the Senate are concerned, care about the slaughter going on in Syria and agitated [that] those in the rest of the world are not doing more," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.
The 92-6 vote came as part of the annual defense policy debate. Minutes after the amendment was approved, the Senate voted 98-0 to pass the broader bill, which lays out everything from troop levels to restrictions on how the military fights the war on terror.
With the U.S. involved in Afghanistan and with the Middle East still simmering in the wake of the Arab Spring, policymakers are grappling with what role America should play.
Backers said the classified assessment from the Pentagon of a no-fly zone plan would help inform Congress as to what options there are for the U.S. to try to contain the regime in Syria, which is engaged in a pitched battle with rebels.
Among the options the Pentagon would study would be the no-fly zone, deploying air-defense systems such as Patriot missile batteries to neighboring countries, or engaging in air strikes to take out Syrian aircraft.
The study does not authorize U.S. force.
But Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said the amendment smacks of the beginning of involvement.
"I think it's a bad idea to discuss contingency plans for war," he said.
He said the last no-fly zone the U.S. led, in Libya, has produced a questionable result, ousting dictator Moammar Gadhafi but replacing him with a government that is not clearly pro-American. And he pointed to the results of elections in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate won the presidency, as another sign of worry.
The defense bill will now have to be squared with the House, which passed its own version earlier this year.
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