WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers quickly called for action after the White House informed members of Congress on Thursday that American intelligence agencies now believe the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
But many were not specific about what that action might be taken.
President Obama has warned that Syria's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line," raising the possibility of military intervention to secure the country's large stockpile.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was clear that the line had been breached.
In light of the White House accusation, “I am very concerned that ... President Assad may calculate he has nothing more to lose, and the likelihood he will further escalate this conflict therefore increases,” Feinstein said.
“Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons," she added. "The world must come together to prevent this by unified action which results in the secure containment of Syria’s significant stockpile of chemical weapons."
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes the Assad regime has been testing the international community by using the banned weapons in small quantities to gauge what the response might be.
"The administration has said it's a game changer, but it's not clear what that new game will look like," he said. "I think it is incumbent on the international community to take strong action."
The White House is deeply reluctant to become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged during a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday that confirmation of chemical weapons use would dramatically raise the stakes in a war that already is believed to have claimed about 70,000 lives.
“It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel said. “Most people in the world, most leaders put the use of chemical weapons in a different category.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long pressed the Obama administration to take tougher action against Syria, said he hopes the administration will consider establishing a safe area for Assad's opponents, enforcing a "no-fly" zone and providing weapons to "the people in the resistance who we trust."
"It requires United States assistance; it does not mean boots on the ground," he told reporters.