BEIRUT

Middle East

U.S. lawmakers weigh Syria’s chemical weapons conundrum

A damaged tank belonging to forces loyal to Assad is seen at a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs.

WASHINGTON: Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could be a greater threat after that nation’s president leaves power and may end up targeting Americans at home, lawmakers warned Sunday as they mulled a U.S. response that stops short of sending troops there.

The warnings coincided with reports from opposition activists that fighting had erupted near a complex linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program in Damascus.

Pressure is mounting on the White House to do more to help Syrian rebels fighting against the government of President Bashar Assad which the Obama administration last week said had probably used chemical arms in the conflict.

The U.S. assessment followed similar conclusions from Britain, France, Israel and Qatar – key allies eager for a more aggressive response to the conflict.

President Barack Obama has said Syria’s likely action – or the transfer of Assad’s stockpiles to terrorists – would cross a “red line” that would compel the United States to act.

Lawmakers sought to remind viewers of Sunday news programs of Obama’s declaration while discouraging a U.S. foothold on the ground there.

“The president has laid down the line, and it can’t be a dotted line. It can’t be anything other than a red line,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, told ABC’s “This Week.”

“And more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, said: “For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake.”

Obama has insisted that any use of chemical weapons would change his thinking about the United States’ role in Syria but said he didn’t have enough information to order aggressive action.

“For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues,” Obama said Friday.

But Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, said Sunday the United States needs to consider those weapons. She said that when Assad leaves power, his opponents could have access to those weapons or they could fall into the hands of U.S. enemies.

Both sides of the war already accuse each other of using the weapons.

The deadliest such alleged attack was in the Khan al-Assal village in the Aleppo province in March. The Syrian government called for the U.N. to investigate alleged chemical weapons use by rebels in the attack that killed 31 people.

Syria, however, has not allowed a team of experts into the country because it wants the investigation limited to the single Khan al-Assal incident, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged “immediate and unfettered access” for an expanded investigation.

One of Obama’s chief antagonists on Syria, Sen. John McCain, said the United States should go to Syria as part of an international force to safeguard the chemical weapons. But McCain added that he was not advocating sending ground troops to the nation.

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

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, also said the United States could safeguard the weapons without a ground force. But he warned the weapons must be protected for fear that Americans could be targeted. Graham said attacks on U.S. soil could employ weapons that were once part of Assad’s arsenal.

“One way you can stop the Syrian air force from flying is to bomb the Syrian air bases with cruise missiles,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Hours later the reports emerged of fighting near the Scientific Studies and Research Center at the foothill of the Qassioun Mountain in the northern Barzeh district in Damascus. Barzeh is hosting opposition brigades but the rebels lack the firepower to reach the heavily fortified complex, which is being used to shell the district.

A three-day regime offensive aimed at driving the rebels out has seen at least nine people killed, mostly from shelling.

With discussions in the U.S. centered on whether and how to proceed militarily, regional stakeholders were meeting in Iran to discuss a political solution to the crisis.

Senior aides to Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi made a rare visit to Tehran for talks with Iran on an Islamic initiative to address the crisis.

Mursi’s foreign affairs adviser Essam Haddad and his chief-of-staff Rifaa El-Tahtawy met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and senior figures in Iran’s foreign policy establishment. The visit followed Ahmadinejad’s groundbreaking visit to Cairo in February.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement said they agreed on “the necessity of an action plan … to act on the Egyptian president’s plan on the Syria crisis through an acceptable political solution which can help end the violence and help national reconciliation with the participation of the people of Syria.”

Mursi included Iran, alongside Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in a diplomatic “Islamic Quartet” of countries established last year to try to broker a solution in Syria.

Ahmadinejad Sunday reiterated Iran’s staunch support for Damascus, insisting that a rebel victory in Syria would threaten the entire region, his office’s website said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2013, on page 1.

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