- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lawmakers on Sunday hailed the lofty goals of a pact the United States and Russia struck to locate and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — but questioned whether Obama administration can assure the stockpiles won’t be hidden by the Assad regime or seized by radicalized rebel groups.

A tentative deal reached Saturday would force the Syrian government to declare its toxic weapons and begin to dismantle them by 2014. But it is unclear whether U.N. inspectors can meet the pact’s demanding benchmarks in the midst of a raging civil war.

Some Republicans are worried about a lack of “hard dates” in the deal hammered out by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva.

Democrats noted that the timetable is clear and aggressive despite the risk of obfuscation and chicanery by Mr. Assad.

“I think we’re going to get a really good indication even within a week or two, when the Assad regime has to declare what kind of stockpiles they have,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN’s State of the Union. “And as early as November, those inspectors are supposed to be in on the ground. So I don’t think it will take too long.”

Still, skepticism abounds among lawmakers and foreign policy insiders who say the deal is unprecedented and demanding, if not too little and too late.

SEE ALSO: Sen. John McCain: Syrian deal does little, relies on Russians

“We knew they had these large cache of chemical weapons,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, told CNN, arguing that the Obama administration failed to deal with Syria before an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,000 people near Damascus.

The attack pressured President Obama to follow through with action after imposing a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, and to tangibly engage in the 2-year-old conflict for the first time.

Adding complexity, foreign policy insiders are concerned about a dearth of evidence linking Mr. Assad to the use of chemical weapons, despite broad consensus that the Syrian president ordered the Aug. 21 attack.

An unclassified version of the U.S. government’s assessment of the attack made mention of Mr. Assad by name only once, asserting that he “is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty.”

Also, lawmakers are concerned about weapons falling into the hands of such Sunni extremist and al Qaeda-linked groups as the al-Nusra Front.

Mr. Obama told ABC’s “This Week” that radicalized rebel groups would have no qualms about using chemical weapons inside or outside of Syria.

SEE ALSO: Rep. Mike Rogers: Putin playing chess; Obama playing tick-tack-toe

“Part of the reason why we’ve been so concerned about this chemical weapons issue is because we don’t want those folks getting chemical weapons any more than we want Assad to have chemical weapons,” he said in an interview taped Friday. “And so the best solution is for us to get them out of there.”

Mr. Obama and U.S. lawmakers have not offered ground troops to push the Assad regime out of power.

But that does not change the fact that weapons inspectors will be wading into a nation ravaged by the long-standing conflict between the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult going into a civil war situation,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, told “Fox News Sunday.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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