- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two key Republican senators called on President Obama on Tuesday to follow through on his threats to Syrian President Bashar Assad if reports that the embattled Syrian leader may have used chemical weapons against rebel forces are substantiated.

Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, both senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have been urging Mr. Obama to intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition since the uprising in the country began in 2011.

They spoke up Tuesday after conflicting reports that there had been a chemical weapons strike in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo on Tuesday, although the Assad government was claiming rebel forces were to blame.

“President Obama has said that the use of weapons of mass destruction by Bashar Assad is a ‘red line’ for him that ‘will have consequences,’” they said. “If today’s reports are substantiated, the president’s red line has been crossed, and we would urge him to take immediate action to impose the consequences he has promised.”

If confirmed, the Aleppo strike would be the first known use of chemical weapons in the 2-year-old civil war and a glimpse of one of the nightmare scenarios for this conflict, The Associated Press reported.

One of the international community’s top concerns since fighting began is that Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons could be used by one side or the other, or could fall into the hands of foreign jihadist fighters among the rebels or the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with the regime.

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The Syrian regime said at least 25 people were killed and 86 wounded, some in critical condition, in the missile attack on the village of Khan al-Assal, the AP reported. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency published pictures showing casualties, including children, on stretchers in what appeared to be a hospital ward. None showed signs of physical injuries.

Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing the chemical weapon.

The head of Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the group was still investigating the alleged chemical attack.

“Everyone who used it, we are against him, whatever he is,” Mouaz al-Khatib told reporters in Istanbul. “We are against killing civilians using chemical weapons, but let us wait some time to have accurate information.”

Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said the U.S. response should include arming vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeting strikes against Mr. Assad’s air forces and Scud missile batteries on the ground, and establishing safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups.

“If today’s reports are substantiated, the tragic irony will be that these are the exact same actions that could have prevented the use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria,” they said.

The White House said Tuesday it cannot confirm whether the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on rebel forces but reiterated a stern warning to Mr. Assad that the international community would hold him accountable if he uses them.

“The president was clear when he said that if Assad and those under his command make the mistake of using chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them, then there will be consequences, and they will be held accountable,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Mr. Carney said he would not discuss U.S. intelligence processes and any evidence that has been gathered so far about an suspected chemical attack in Aleppo.

“All I can tell you is that this is an issue that has been made very clear by the president to be of great concern to us,” he said.

When pressed on whether the U.S. would decide to arm Syria’s rebel forces if there is proof of a chemical attack on them, Mr. Carney said only that “we are constantly assessing our programs of assistance to the Syrian people and to the Syrian opposition.”

⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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