As concerns grow about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the debate is shifting rapidly on Capitol Hill as top Democrats and Republicans urge President Barack Obama to do more to support the Syrian opposition -- even through military intervention.
The latest example came late Thursday, when House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) introduced a new bill calling on the Obama administration to arm the Syrian rebels.
Called the "Free Syria Act of 2013," the legislation calls for increased humanitarian and economic assistance to the Syrian opposition as well as arms, training, and intelligence support to vetted rebel groups that share Western values.
"President Assad's days are numbered as the situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. No longer can we watch as the world's worst humanitarian disaster unfolds before our very eyes," Engel told The Cable. "We are long past due to arm friendly rebels and turn the tide to allow for a more hopeful Syrian future. Ridding Syria of Assad will provide a strategic setback to Iran, which uses Syria as a pass-through to prop up their terrorist proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon."
The Engel-Rogers bill, which is also sponsored by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), would set up a framework under which the Obama administration could deploy anti-aircraft systems to help the rebels fight off the Syrian regime's attacks from above, allow the administration to push forward with a program to seek out and destroy Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, and assist a post-Assad transition by using sanctions relief and loans from international financial institutions to support a new transitional government.
"The United States has special capabilities that should be used to help facilitate and prepare for a post-Assad transition," Rogers told The Cable. "As the Assad regime deteriorates and loses control, the chaos created will create a serious humanitarian crisis. This slow-motion nightmare will quickly turn into a fast paced reality for thousands. The transition will undoubtedly be turbulent and painful, which is why we must prepare immediately."
Engel and Rogers are only the latest bipartisan duo to join forces on Syria. Earlier Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) teamed up with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a letter calling on Obama to use airstrikes to attack Assad's military power and then establish a "safe zone" inside Syria.
"We believe there are credible options at your disposal, including limited military options, that would require neither putting U.S. troops on the ground nor acting unilaterally," Levin and McCain wrote. "First, we urge you to lead an effort, together with our friends and allies, to degrade the Assad regime's airpower and to support Turkey if they are willing to establish a safe zone inside of Syria's northern border."
In a March 19 interview with The Cable, Levin explained that Patriot missile batteries currently deployed in Turkey could be used to shoot down Syrian regime aircraft in a 20-mile safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.
"You could protect that kind of a zone with these Patriot missiles, leaving the missiles in Turkey but having the zone inside the Syrian border," he said. "It is a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad and also create a zone where Syrian people who are looking for protection and safety could come without crossing the border and becoming refugees."
Levin and McCain also urged Obama to increase humanitarian support for the opposition. That call was at the heart of a new bill introduced March 19 by yet another bipartisan team of lawmakers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Bob Casey (D-PA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), called the "Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013."
"In Syria, we have a terrible humanitarian crisis that is strengthening Iran's influence and giving Islamist terrorists a chance to seize power after Assad is gone," Rubio said in a press conference.
"The killing and destruction has gone on too long, and we need to renew our efforts to support the Syrian people and opposition," said Casey.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.