Capitol Hill lawmakers said Sunday that the U.S. must take a tough stance against Syria for reportedly using chemical weapons against its own people but stopped short of calling for troops to intervene inside the country.
President Obama, they said, must not back down from his warning that Syria’s likely action — or any transfer of chemical weapons to terrorists — would cross a “red line” that would cause the U.S. to act. Doing so, they said, would embolden Syrian President Bashar Assad and rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
“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,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told ABC’s “This Week.” “And more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this.”
The White House said last week that military forces loyal to Mr. Assad probably used chemical weapons in their battle with opposition groups intent on toppling his regime — a civil war that has left more than 70,000 people dead in the past two years and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The announcement confirmed intelligence reports from Israel, Britain, France and Qatar.
The White House added that it didn’t have enough information to order an aggressive response.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, said it would be a “huge mistake” for the U.S. to do nothing. But, he added, U.S. intervention should be limited to such measures as a “no-fly” zone over Syria enforced with U.S. anti-aircraft missiles — not troops on the ground.
“If we did that, then it’s still not up to the United States to engage in this from a military conflict standpoint,” Mr. Chambliss said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We don’t need to put boots on the ground, but we need to enable their neighbors — the neighbors of Syria, to bring some sort of peaceful resolution to this.”
The senator said the U.S. is close to establishing a no-fly zone.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, refused to rule out sending U.S. troops to Syria. She said on “Face the Nation” that the situation has “really deteriorated,” though it has not reached a “tipping point.”
“Obviously, we don’t want to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama went too far with his “red line” comment.
“What has happened here is the president drew red lines about chemical weapons, thereby giving a green light to Bashar Assad to do anything short of that including Scud missiles and helicopter gunships and airstrikes and mass executions and atrocities that are on a scale that we have not seen in a long, long time,” Mr. McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Associated Press reported that Syrian rebels fought intense battles with government troops Sunday to try to seize control of three military air bases in the country’s north and curtail the regime’s use of its punishing air power, activists said.
Rebels, who have been trying to capture the airfields for months, broke into the sprawling Abu Zuhour air base in northwestern Idlib province and Kweiras base in the Aleppo province Saturday. Fighting raged inside the two facilities Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least seven fighters and an unknown number of soldiers were killed in Abu Zuhour. The group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the Syrian air force conducted an airstrike on the village during the fighting to ease pressure on government troops inside the base.
Rebels control much of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, which border Turkey, although government troops hold some areas, including the provincial capital of Idlib province and parts of the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center.
If Mr. Assad is overthrown, his weapons stockpiles — conventional and chemical — could fall into the wrong hands, Mr. Rogers warned. He implored the Arab League to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict.
“You have al Qaeda all over the country now, even knocking on Israel’s doorstep in the south, also looking to get better equipped through these stockpiles,” he said. “It is horribly destabilizing. That’s why [the Arab League] need[s] to take a leadership role.”
Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and a member of the House intelligence panel, agreed that “the day after Assad [is toppled] is the day that these chemical weapons could be at risk.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, also said he worries what will happen to Mr. Assad’s arsenal if he loses his grip on power.
“Just like in Libya, we had a lot of weapons that went to some bad guys. And it’s the same situation here,” he told “This Week.”
Mr. Ruppersberger added that policing a no-fly zone in Syria would be much more difficult than in Libya — where the United Nations established such a zone in 2011 — because the Syrian military is significantly more advanced.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and a member of the House Homeland Security and intelligence committees, told “Meet the Press” he is concerned that al Qaeda has influence with the Syrian rebels “and that if we assist the rebels, al Qaeda could take advantage of that.”
“Having said that, and the president did say that there’s a red line, and once the United States lays out a red line, some action has to be taken,” he said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, said on “Meet the Press,” “I don’t think the world’s greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and do nothing.”
He said the Obama administration has nonmilitary options available to deal with Syria, despite the president’s “red line” warning.
“Red line does not mean boots on the ground. But there’s a lot of things we can do other than that. We have been providing nonlethal military aid,” Mr. Ellison said. “But more coordination and dealing with this humanitarian crisis, I think, is essential.”
• David Eldridge contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.