Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's cautious response to Syria's likely use of chemical weapons reflects a lack of agreement in Washington over aggressive military intervention, but lawmakers in both parties fear that inaction could embolden not only Syrian President Bashar Assad but U.S. foes as well.
The White House cautiously acknowledged that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, most likely the agent sarin, in the two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Obama has declared that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" for a major military response, but the White House made clear Friday that even a quick strike wasn't imminent.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the prospect of the use of chemical weapons in Syria is "gravely serious," but he insisted the administration needed more evidence to bolster its intelligence assessments.
"This is not an airtight case," he said. "We do have some evidence, but we need to build on that."
Emerging from a closed-door briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry on Capitol Hill, House Republicans and Democrats expressed uncertainty about the appropriate next step as the Obama administration considers limited military options.
No lawmaker pressed for a U.S. military invasion after more than 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is such a muddled picture," said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think probably we should be asking the U.N. to be involved. I think perhaps that's in the making."
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, was among many lawmakers who called for a cautious approach to Syria even as they acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.
"We want to do everything we can to avoid putting boots on the ground," he told reporters. The U.S. should work with other countries to stabilize Syria and ensure its chemical weapons are kept out of the hands of terrorist groups, he said.
"I don't think that we, just as the United States, want to go in to another war," Ruppersberger said.
Obama's vow that Syria's use of chemical weapons would elicit a strong response and the administration's latest caution raise questions about Obama's definition of a red line. The U.S. credibility and international authority are on the line in the administration's handling of Syria, and the message it sends to Assad and rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.
"There's no question that when the United States takes a position that this crosses a line that our failure to respond has implications," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I think the president was saying the use of chemical weapons is a game changer. I think most people agree with that. So that if we in fact determine that chemical weapons were used, I think the expectation is that we and the coalition and others take some action."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., wondered whether the red line is "turning into a pink line."
"It's in their ballpark now," he said.
The White House faces a limited choice of military options to help the rebels oust Assad.
Arming the rebels runs smack into the reality that a military group fighting alongside them has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida. Establishing a no-fly zone poses a significant challenge, as Syria possesses an air defense system far more robust than what the U.S. and its allies overwhelmed in Libya two years ago.
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