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Lawmakers Split on Next Steps After Syria’s Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons

The White House’s assessment of Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons in its civil war has intensified calls on Capitol Hill for more aggressive U.S. intervention there, but lawmakers are far from agreeing on what any greater American role would look like.

Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Thursday captured lawmakers’ outrage and ambivalence over Syria when she described the intelligence community’s analysis of Syria’s chemical weapons use as having “medium to high” confidence.

Her disclosure made clear that Syria had crossed the red line set out by President Barack Obama, who has said the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a “game changer” to his policy of providing only humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But Feinstein also said she was against unilateral U.S. action.

“The world must come together to prevent this by unified action, which results in the secure containment of Syria’s significant stockpile of chemical weapons,” Feinstein said. “On the basis of this new assessment, which is matched by France and the United Kingdom, I urge the United Nations Security Council, including Russia, to finally take strong and meaningful action to end this crisis.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the news Thursday during a trip through the Middle East. “It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Several senators quickly renewed their calls for stronger U.S. intervention without waiting for U.N. action.

Arizona Republican John McCain, an outspoken advocate for greater U.S. involvement, said he wants the United States to help provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, establish a no-fly zone, provide weapons to people in the resistance that it trusts and get operational capability to secure chemical weapons stocks.

“It requires the United States’ help and assistance,” McCain said Thursday. “That does not mean boots on the ground.”

‘Tipping Point’

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, weighed in on the side of McCain and others who want Obama to respond to the Syria crisis more aggressively.

“Before we heard of this news on the use of chemical weapons to some degree, I had said we need to change the tipping point in Syria,” Menendez said. “Now with a limited use of chemical weapons — even though we don’t know exactly the supply chain and the chain of control, but we presume for argument’s sake that it’s the Assad regime — it seems to me that our situation has only ratcheted up.”

Menendez said he supports working with regional partners, considering establishing a no-fly zone with international support and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of a controlled process.

“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said separately in a written statement.

What isn’t clear is how lawmakers think the administration should go about achieving those objectives, either unilaterally or as part of a larger international effort.

The administration “certainly shouldn’t be ceding this fully to the United Nations because the United Nations does not have a history of being effective here, and obviously Russia and China can block any actions in the United Nations,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “So I believe that we, again, need to be working certainly with those who are trying to help the opposition, because this is going to remain in a stalemate, and ultimately I’ve said from that I would support lethal assistance to the opposition.”

Some lawmakers, while calling for greater U.S. action, had trouble defining exactly what more should be done.

“Well, I think that that gives us an excuse to do some things that perhaps we should have done anyway, in terms of injecting ourselves into it,” Senate Armed Services ranking Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma said Thursday. “I don’t want to say an all-out attack and that sort of thing, but I think that that confirms what we have all thought. It is always easier when you are dealing with something that has been confirmed than just our own personal suspicions.”

Call for Caution

Several Republicans reacted more cautiously to the news.

“I think there is still some of the agencies saying with moderate confidence, some with high confidence,” Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said Thursday. “I think the next step is to make sure that we can look back and know that these samples, that the chain of ownership was appropriate, and we know that it is valid.”

Corker added, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”

Several Democrats also cautioned against a rush to military action.

“I’d rather have one person make that decision than 535 people try to make that decision,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also made clear that he wasn’t ready to support full-scale military intervention.

“I believe Syria’s President Assad must go,” he said in a written statement Thursday. “But I don’t feel it’s in our best interest to go into Syria right now.”

Further debate on a U.S. response was expected Friday after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

A senior White House official said the administration would wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into two suspected cases of chemical weapons use in Syria produced what he called “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment. He gave no indication of when the U.N. probe would announce its conclusions.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community,” Miguel Rodriguez, director of the White House’s office of legislative affairs, wrote Thursday to McCain and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., in a clear reference to the intelligence failures that preceded the 2003 Iraq War.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, expressed his support for Obama’s efforts to confirm Syria’s use of chemical weapons,but criticized the president’s reliance on the United Nations, a popular target among Republicans. He also joined other Republicans in demanding that Obama explain how he planned to deal with Syria.

“After two years of brutal conflict, it’s past time for the President to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end,” he said in a written statement.

According to the White House letter describing its chemical weapons findings, the “chain of custody” of the evidence tested is not clear, meaning that intelligence officials cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.

“We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime,” Rodriguez wrote. “Thus far, we believe that the Assad regime maintains custody of these weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to escalate its horrific use of violence against the Syrian people.”

The White House letter informing lawmakers of Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons came in response to a written request Wednesday from McCain, Levin and several other lawmakers for the administration’s assessment of chemical weapons use during Syria’s two-year civil war. Britain, France and, most recently, Israel have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against insurgents seeking to topple his authoritarian regime.

Humberto Sanchez, Megan Scully and Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.