By Jeremy Herb and Julian Pecquet - 03/20/13 09:00 AM EDT
Pressure on the Obama administration to use military force in Syria intensified Tuesday after reports that President Bashar Assad’s government had crossed a line drawn by President Obama by using chemical weapons.
The reports, which were denied by the Syrian government and unconfirmed by third parties, triggered a growing number of lawmakers to call on the White House to at least arm the rebels fighting Assad.
“I’ve never been more worried about weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorists’ hands than I am right now,” he said. “And I would urge the president and Republican leaders to openly embrace ending this conflict sooner rather than later with a post-Assad plan that focuses on securing these chemical weapons sites.”
Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a later statement if the use of chemical weapons was substantiated, the administration should arm vetted rebel groups, launch targeted strikes against Assad’s missile batteries and establish safe zones in Syria.
Calls for greater action by the administration had begun to percolate before Tuesday’s reports.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation this week to arm vetted rebel groups, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he would support airstrikes against Syria’s air defense and the creation of safe zones.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to confirm reports that chemical weapons had been used, something Obama had warned would prompt U.S. action. He said the White House is “looking carefully at the information as it comes in.”
Carney did say there was “no evidence” to support the Assad government’s charges that the chemical weapons attack came from rebel forces.
Syrian state media said 25 people were killed and dozens more injured by a rocket containing chemical materials in the town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, on Tuesday.
The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees said Tuesday that briefings led them to believe Syria had used chemical weapons.
“I have a high probability to believe chemical weapons were used,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told CNN. “We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I ... would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use or in fact have been used. And in both of those scenarios, I think we need to step up in the world community to prevent a humanitarian disaster.”
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she and Rogers had been advised to be careful with the information, but that the Syrian government was becoming “more desperate, and we know where the chemical weapons are.”
The White House did not rule out the possibility that the Assad government had waged the attack and warned of “consequences.”
“We have been very clear about our concern that, as the Assad regime is increasingly beleaguered, ... that it will consider the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” Carney said, stressing that the administration was “obviously treating this as a serious issue.”
Pressed on the possible consequences, Carney said he “wouldn’t care to speculate,” but read from a speech Obama gave at the National War College in December.
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” the president said at the time. “And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there where be consequences, and you will be held accountable.”
Syrian officials have said chemical weapons would only be used against foreign fighters, not Syrians.
Lawmakers urged Obama to use his visit with U.S. allies Israel and Jordan this week to seek a regional strategy.
“During his visit,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, “I hope the president makes progress in working with our allies to address these threats that have developed while Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and to begin the important planning to address the challenges that will come with his fall, such as how best to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.”
The government’s chemical weapons stockpile has also rekindled congressional calls for the administration to prepare to seize the country’s weapons of mass destruction should Assad lose power.
Engel’s bill calls for a program to assist with the “securing, disabling, dismantling, removal, and destruction” of Syria’s chemical weapons. And Senate Foreign Relations panel members Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Tuesday unveiled a bill that also calls for a program to “recover and dispose of all non-conventional weapons” in Syria.
“The group we want to empower are the people we think we can work with responsibly in the future,” Rubio said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the United States expects the rebel groups it supports to give up the country’s chemical and biological arms if they end up taking power.
“Other governments in the region, governments in Europe and our government here will work in concert to have those lethal weapons scuttled,” he told The Hill. “It’s so logical that of course it will be the game plan.”
Justin Sink contributed.