Congressional Republicans on Sunday ratcheted up pressure on the White House to intervene in Syria, saying the United States “has sat on the sidelines for too long” amid increasing evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians.
They called for action as President Obama weighs evidence of a toxic attack in suburban Damascus. Several hundred Syrians, including women and children, were killed in Wednesday’s artillery assault, though the exact death toll and details of the attack remain murky.
While the rebels have blamed the government, the regime has denied using chemical weapons and has blamed rebels for deploying them.
But American officials increasingly say footage of patients convulsing with symptoms of poisoning seem legitimate and not an attempt by the rebels to stir anger against President Bashar Assad.
“This was not contrived,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told “Fox News Sunday.” “And, obviously, the world is a better place when the United States takes leadership.”
He said it is time for Mr. Obama, with Congress’ blessing, to act in a “surgical way” in the region but stopped short of calling for ground troops.
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Syrian State TV announced Sunday that Mr. Assad’s government would let U.N. inspectors visit the attack site — a statement later confirmed by the United Nations — although the Obama administration feels the regime waited for the outward effects of the attack to fade, according to The Associated Press.
The wire service quoted a senior administration official as saying there is “very little doubt” that Syria used a chemical weapon against civilians.
The United Nations, which says more than 100,000 Syrians have died in the civil war since it began in 2011, had a chemical weapons investigation team in Syria on Wednesday to look into earlier attacks.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a pair of Republican defense hawks, said Sunday that the conflict presents a direct risk to American allies in the Middle East, especially if chemical weapons are handed off to dangerous operatives in the region.
Citing “the responsibility of civilized nations everywhere,” they called on the White House to take decisive action through limited military involvement in Syria.
Republican lawmakers were not explicit in how they expect the U.S. government to proceed, yet none of them called for ground forces.
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“Using stand-off weapons, without boots on the ground, and at minimal risk to our men and women in uniform, we can significantly degrade Assad’s air power and ballistic missile capabilities and help to establish and defend safe areas on the ground,” Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said in a joint statement. “In addition, we must begin a large-scale effort to train and equip moderate, vetted elements of the Syrian opposition with the game-changing weapons they need to shift the military balance against Assad’s forces.”
While the White House says it retains a number of options, the Pentagon appears not to be eager to use direct military force.
In a letter this week to a top member of Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said attempting to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent the government from using air power against the rebels would be possible, but it would not be decisive in breaking the regime’s hold on power and could end up getting the United States more deeply involved in the conflict.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said it is unclear who can be trusted or who will prevail in the Syrian conflict.
“I have no affection for Mr. Assad. I’ve dealt with him. I know him. And he is a pathological liar with respect to my interaction with him,” the retired general told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “But at the same time, I am less sure of the resistance. What do they represent? And is it becoming even more radicalized with more al Qaeda coming in?”
According to a White House statement, the president on Sunday discussed Syria by telephone with French President Francois Hollande and prime ministers David Cameron of Britain and Kevin Rudd of Australia before heading to the golf course.