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WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. House members say American intervention in Syria’s civil war is likely, but they signaled the Obama administration has yet to settle on what that will entail.
House members were briefed Friday morning by Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld about an intelligence assessment that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons. Lawmakers left the meeting mostly united that the U.S. should step in, but they agreed inserting American ground forces would be a mistake.
“Every option’s on the table, as far as Syria is concerned,” House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., told reporters moments after leaving the classified briefing.
Ruppersberger and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a senior House Foreign Affairs Committee member, confirmed to reporters some of the options under consideration by the Obama administration.
Ruppersberger said, in the wake of the administration's revelation that the intelligence community believes Assad’s regime likely used chemical weapons twice recently, U.S. officials are considering options such as directly arming rebel fighters and setting up a no-fly zone to keep regime war planes and strike helicopters grounded.
Sherman added to that list “supporting refugees” and “cash for opposition groups.”
“I’m not going into anything classified when I say the secretary laid out what some of those options would be,” Sherman said. He added “I cannot say, ‘It has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt — yet — that these weapons were used ... by forces loyal to Assad’.”
Lawmakers were uncharacteristically united about what a no-fly zone would look a lot like the 2011 U.S.-led — and later turned over to NATO — mission in Libya. “Like we did in Libya, we got the Arab League involved, we got NATO involved,” Ruppersberger said. “I don’t think we, the United States, want to go into another war.”
But Pelosi said “it is pretty clear” that “this is not Libya.” That’s because “the Syrians have anti-aircraft systems” and other modern weaponry “that would make going in there much more challenging.
Sherman also raised concerns about Syria air-defense systems. The administration would be wise to realize a no-fly zone would not be a “no-casualties option.”
Administration officials said Friday they are taking steps to verify the intel assessment, adding Obama will not act until the finding has been verified.
In a striking development, typically dovish House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told a small group of reporters that, given the finding on chemical weapons, “I think we have to take it to the next step.”
“I myself think that we have tolerated for too long all of the assaults on the Syrian people made by its own government,” Pelosi said.
But she paused, her face turning more serious, and added: “That does not mean troops on the ground."
Other lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — echoed Ruppersberger and Pelosi, saying a no-fly zone likely is the best in a set of less-than-optimal options for Washington and its allies in the region.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said U.S. officials should work with its allies on the no-fly zone, and several other issues.
“NATO, led by Turkey, could effectively set up the no-fly zones, the no-chemical weapons zones, the no-troops zones,” Issa said. “This is not a call to war, but reducing Bashar Assad’s ability to kill his own people.”
Issa applauded Obama’s cautious approach so far. And Pelosi said “we have to take this one step at a time.”
“I think there’s a strong, good reason for that,” Issa said. “I think he needs to be careful about pre-emptive attacks against targets other than protecting the lives of innocent Syrians.”
Several lawmakers told reporters the Obama administration must consider what would happen if it forms a coalition that eventually drives Assad from power.
“What happens after Assad leaves? That’s another thing we have to look at,” Ruppersberger said. “You [would] have issues with Israel, you have Turkey, you have Jordan.”
All are close U.S. allies in a region where Washington often has few dependable friends.
Issa was most upbeat about the post-Assad era, suggesting local officials could quickly fill the governance vacuum.
“Once you create safe havens where the U.N. agencies can go in to provide relief ... what you’ve really done is created the ability for local governance — for mayors, governors, and so on — to take responsibility in those areas,” Issa said.
He another House members were quick to reject the notion of a U.S.-led ground force to either strike a decisive military blow that topples the Assad regime or is inserted to stabilize the country after its fall.
“I would think, at this time with all of the other issues that we have, that we want to do everything we can to avoid having to put boots on the ground,” Ruppersberger told reporters. “We have unique resources that no other countries have, and we can work with the other countries to do what we have to do.”
There were few calls for Obama to seek congressional authorization for a Syria mission. He was widely criticized during the Libya operation for opting against doing so.
“It depends on what the next step is,” Pelosi said. And Issa sidestepped the question, saying only: “I believe there would be strong support in the House and Senate for this.”
Ruppersberger urged Obama administration officials to press Moscow, Assad’s last lone powerful ally, to help force him out. “I think Russia’s involvement would be a game changer.”