Key House and Senate lawmakers who have called for the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian civil war used Thursday afternoon’s announcement that chemical weapons had been used to urge the White House to step it up.
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham said President Barack Obama should establish a no-fly zone to opponents of Bashar al-Assad.
“This isn’t just a bunch of demonstrators being beaten up. This a regional conflict. It spilled over … Jordan is destabilized, Lebanon is about to erupt into sectarian violence, jihadists are falling in from all over the Middle East. This is erupting,” McCain said on CNN.
“Vital national security interests are at stake,” he added. “No we don’t want boots on the ground and yes we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily.”
The White House didn’t say it would be providing weapons to the rebels, but announced it would “increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition.”
The Syrian issue has been an important one to the two senators — McCain has met with opposition leaders in Syria — and they pushed Obama to go even further. They want a no-fly zone and Patriot missiles to ensure the civil war in Syria doesn’t spread to other areas of the Middle East.
Graham (R-S.C.) called it a “big day” in the conflict.
“The goal is to end the war. And the only way this war is going to end quickly and on our terms is to neutralize the air assets that Assad enjoys,” Graham said. “We can crater the runways. There are four air bases he uses. We can stop the planes from flying. We can shoot planes down without having one boot on the ground.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he spoke with General Salim Idris, the leader of the Syrian opposition, “and he reported that the situation inside the country is dire. Thousands of Assad’s troops and Hezbollah fighters are assembling outside Aleppo for a ground assault. If the U.S. is not prepared to provide more robust assistance then I fear that the moderate opposition forces will be defeated.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) praised the White House for saying Assad crossed the so-called red line and called for additional U.S. action.
“The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces,” he said in a statement. “These efforts have the potential of turning the tide once and for all against the Assad regime to deliver a peace negotiation. Then the United States would have the credibility it needs for a seat at the table during the transition to a post-Assad Syria.”
The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee hoped that the U.S. moved quickly to arm the opposition.
“What more does the civilized world need in order to come to the aid of the Syrian people who want to rid themselves of this monster?” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) of Assad. “The President’s ‘red line’ has clearly been crossed, and it is crystal clear that the United States must provide appropriate arms to those in Syria fighting for their lives and freedom. Further delay is not an option.”
Several House members leaving the floor shortly after the announcement said they were unaware of the news in Syria. Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, declined to endorse the Graham-McCain position.
“I’m not there yet. But we’ll see what happens,” Runyan said. “Some people around here jump to conclusions.”
Informed that the White House had decided the chemical weapon “red line” had been crossed, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) wondered of the president “what planet he’s been on?”
But Mica too said he wasn’t sure a no-fly zone would help – he said during his visits to the Middle East he discovered ground munitions, like mortars, were a bigger problem.
“It’s a day late and a dollar short. Hezbollah and others have joined,” Mica said of the Syria conflict. “We lost a tremendous advantage to go in early to stop some of what was going on … it’s a lead from behind, and we are behind.”