WASHINGTON — Pressure intensified Friday on Capitol Hill for President Barack Obama to use U.S. military force to end the Syrian civil war, with several senior Republican and Democratic senators joining the pro-intervention ranks.
Since rebel forces began fighting embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military two year ago, Obama and his national security aides have resisted becoming directly involved. The Obama administration has argued the conflict is not important enough to U.S. interests, and told lawmakers they are unsure just who the rebels are — warning some might be al-Qaeda operatives.
But a slight shift occurred this week for the White House amid reports that Assad’s military used chemical weapons. Obama previously had labeled any chemical arms use a “game changer” and a “red line.”
“I have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders; we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists,” Obama said Thursday during a speech in Jerusalem.
He then sent a message directly to Assad: “The world is watching. We will hold you accountable.”
Two senior U.S. senators who are influential in Washington on national security and foreign policy circles sent Obama a letter on Thursday urging him to do just that. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Obama he should use air strikes and take other measures to cripple Assad’s military, boost the opposition and protect Syrian citizens.
On Friday, several senators joined the chorus arguing for intervention, and several others signaled they are not opposed.
“If there is evidence that the government of Syria has used chemical weapons, and intends to use them in the future, as the president said, ‘This is the red line,’” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Defense News.
“You cannot say, ‘This is the red line,’ and then not enforce it,” Feinstein said. “I believe the administration is looking at all options. I do not believe that we can countenance any use of chemical weapons.
“Seventy thousand people have died, 3 million people are refugees,” Feinstein said.
“This is a crisis beyond a crisis,” a stern-faced Feinstein said, adding that standing by while Assad’s forces drive up those numbers by employing chemical weapons would “escalate it into a catastrophe.” Feinstein concluded the brief interview outside the Senate chamber by telling a reporter the importance of seeing “evidence” of chemical weapons use or intent to use them.
Asked if she has seen such intelligence, Feinstein said: “I’m not going to comment.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a member of the GOP Whip Team, said, “I’m inclined to be in support of a safe zone, and whatever it takes to achieve that.
“That could very well include some kind of air activity or no-fly zone, something like that,” Blunt said.
Asked if he would support the insertion of U.S. personnel into Syria — boots on the ground — Blunt said bluntly, “I’m not for that.”
Asked during a Friday morning television interview whether there now is an “inevitability” of U.S. or multilateral intervention, Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., replied: “Yes.”
“Circumstances on the ground in Syria continue to change in ways that will move us closer and closer toward some sort of multilateral action,” Coons told MSNBC, “especially if there is a confirmation that the Assad regime ... has used chemical weapons.”
Several senators referenced the Levin-McCain letter, calling it a signal of a worsening situation inside Syria and growing worries on the Hill.
“We believe there are credible options at your disposal, including limited military options, that would require neither putting U.S. troops on the ground nor acting unilaterally,” the senators wrote to Obama.
In the letter, the duo suggests Obama take several steps, including U.S. airstrikes to cripple Assad’s Air Force to “ease the suffering of the Syrian people and protect U.S. national security interests.”
Levin and McCain believe Obama should order air strikes targeting Assad’s combat aircraft and Scud missile batteries.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a close ally on McCain who shares his interventionist foreign policy and national policy philosophy, said she is “very supportive of further action in Syria.” But she added she has yet to discuss with McCain and Levin the possibility of using U.S. air power to end the war — and Assad’s reign.
But not every senator interviewed Friday was quite so hawkish. For instance, several Democratic senators said they do not support U.S. military intervention.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who hails from a state home to troops who might be deployed in such an action, said Friday he is not ready to endorse direct U.S. military involvement.
“I’m not prepared to say, ‘Yes, that is what we should do’,” Kaine told Defense News. “But I’m very concerned with what we’re seeing with the escalation of the civil war, and we’ve got to wrestle with our options.”
Kaine, an Armed Services Committee member, said he expects the panel will discuss the Levin-McCain letter calling for airstrikes.
Other senators said they support a stepped-up U.S. role, but not direct American military operations.
“I’m for a more coordinated U.S. role,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs subcommittee, which oversees the Middle East.
“But letting all the partners know that a more coordinated role does not necessarily mean lethal support, but it does mean much more working with the supporters of the opposition,” Cardin said, adding that a response to the use of chemical weapons would best be addressed by the United Nations.
Others appeared hesitant to get involved at this moment, but signaled they would move into the intervention column if it became clear that Assad and his forces are using chemical arms.
If that happens, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said “whatever the administration decides will rein in a horrible situation, I would support.”