Lawmakers’ concerns grow over future of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal

As the Obama administration weighs responding to a possible chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, lawmakers say their chief concern is the weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands.

Lawmakers from both parties say they don’t support U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, but are warning that the weapons must be safeguarded from terror groups if Assad’s regime collapses.

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There’s been a large outcry for the Obama administration to do more in Syria after the White House said that it believed Assad’s forces used chemical weapons. President Obama has taken a cautious approach, saying that the U.S. must first verify chemical weapons use before taking more aggressive steps.

But the issue of securing the chemical weapons highlights the difficult question of how far America should wade into the two-year old civil war in Syria.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday called for an international force to secure the chemical weapons in Syria.

"There are a number of caches of these chemical weapons," McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” "They cannot fall into the hands of the jihadists, otherwise we will end up seeing those weapons used in other places in the Middle East."

McCain has been one of the most vocal proponents of taking military action in Syria and reiterated calls to establish a no-fly zone and provide arms to rebel groups. But he said he and the U.S. public would not support U.S. troops in Syria.

“The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground on Syria,” said McCain. “That would turn the people against us.”

The senator said he was unsure if an international force should include U.S. troops.

While there is hesitation about committing U.S. troops to another Middle Eastern conflict, there has been a broad consensus that something has to be done if Assad has in fact crossed Obama’s red line.

“It can't be a dotted line. It can't be anything other than a red line,” House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on ABC’s “This Week. “And more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this. So I think the options aren't huge, but some action needs to be taken.”

There has long been a U.S. concern over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Obama warned Assad in August that the use or movement of those weapons would change his calculus toward the country.

Some have said that as Assad loses his grip on power he will be more inclined to use the weapons or give them to militant groups.

But the other problem is that if Assad were to fall, the chemical weapons could end up in the hands of jihadist groups that are part of the Syrian opposition.

“We have to know where they are, and we're very much concerned, if Assad eventually falls, where these chemical weapons are going to go,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on “This Week. “Just like in Libya. We had a lot of weapons that went to some bad guys. And it's the same situation here.”

Some Democrats have joined Republicans in calling for the U.S. to take action in response to the use of chemical weapons. But there’s also been caution expressed about the consequences of taking military actions.

“We have unique weapons that no one else has. But you talk about a no-fly zone. It's easy to say it, but Syria is very sophisticated. Libya was not sophisticated. So, we have a lot of issues on the table, and we've got to get it right,” Ruppersberger said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that the U.S. did not want to rule out boots on the ground, reiterating the president’s line that all options were on the table.

“Obviously we don’t want to do that unless it’s absolutely necessary,” McCaskill said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said rather than putting boots on the ground, the U.S. needed to enable Syria’s neighbors to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

“We can do it through a no fly zone,” Chambliss said. He added that the U.S. had to take action because “the whole world is watching.”