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On Syria intervention, lawmakers find strange bedfellows

Updated 10:00 a.m. ET

As U.N. inspectors head into the Damascus suburbs on Monday to examine the site of a reported mass chemical attack, some rare alliances - and rifts - are breeding among members of Congress split by thousands of miles, still two weeks out of their return from summer recess.

Tennessee senator on possible U.S. action in Syria

"In my mind there is no question that if they have used chemical weapons, it's up to us to intervene," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. - ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - said Monday on "CBS This Morning." "On the other hand, I can understand why Americans do not want us mired down into a civil war. And I don't want to see us do that - so I think, again, something that's surgical, proportional, lets the regime know that we're not going to put up with these kinds of activities. I think it's important for us to do that.

"At the same time, I support the policy, again, of allowing the moderate, vetted opposition be the ones to carry out the activities on the ground," he continued. "And I think there's a way we can strike a balance here. I hope that's what the administration intends to do. I think it is, and I certainly support that, once we've concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that chemicals have been used on the ground. And I think we're probably at that point now."

Corker on "Fox News Sunday" over the weekend said he hopes the president requests congressional authorization to act "as soon as we get back to Washington." Democratic New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on the same program agreed, but warned that lawmakers' return to Washington on Sept. 9 might not be soon enough.

"We have to move, and we have to move quickly," he said. Engel suggested President Obama act sooner rather than later to okay missile strikes that could take out Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles and operating bases. "We could wipe out the Syrian air force if we wanted to" with surgical air strikes, he said.

A senior White House official said Sunday there was "very little doubt" Assad's regime used a chemical weapon against civilians in an Aug. 21 incident that killed at least 100 people, but added the president hadn't yet determined how to proceed.

It's an issue with no clear partisan breaks, defined vaguely in the Capitol Hill community by hawks versus wait-and-see advocates. On one side: Corker and Engel, rallying to protect U.S. interests through military intervention in the region's raging civil war. On the other: Gen. Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed, D-R.I., and, to a lesser extent, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, pleading to wait out the probe into the chemical weapons attack.

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Assad is a "pathological liar," Powell, who has dealt with the Syrian president in the past, said Sunday on "Face the Nation." But, he qualified, the rebels fighting against him might not be any better: "I have no affection for Mr. Assad," he said. "But at the same time, I am less sure of the resistance. What do they represent? And is it becoming even more radicalized with more al Qaeda coming in? And what would it look like if they prevailed and Assad went? I don't know."

Powell argued the United States should recognize the limits of its own ability to affect change abroad: "We can influence things and we can be ready to help people when problems have been resolved or one side has prevailed over the other, that's when I think we can play a role. But to think that we can change things immediately just because we're America - that's not necessarily the case.

"These are internal struggles and the parties inside those countries are going to have to sort it out amongst themselves," Powell continued.

Reed agreed later on the show that the raging violence is a "regional conflict," transcending boundaries "into Lebanon with Hezbollah." That's why, he said, "this has to be an international operation; it can't be a unilateral American approach." During a telephone meeting with French President Nicolas Hollande, Mr. Obama "discussed possible responses by the international community and agreed to continue to consult closely," his office said Sunday.

"I believe our objective is to make it prohibitive for any country to use chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction," Reed opined. "So a military option that would be limited to that point is something that [President Obama] should be thinking about very carefully.

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McCaul on using cruise missiles in Syria

"But I think we can't let ourselves get into a war where this becomes a springboard for a general military operation in Syria to change the dynamics," he continued. "That dynamic is going to be long-term, very difficult, and ultimately established and settled by the Syrians, not foreign powers."

Slamming the president for having "allowed this to fester," McCaul's case took on arguments from both camps, criticizing in particular Mr. Obama's insistence that a "red line" must be crossed in Syria by use of chemical weapons if the United States is going to engage: "We tried a 'wait-and-see' policy, hoping for the best, and we had time to support moderate forces in toppling the Assad regime, and we failed to do that," he said. "And now, we have no good outcome.

"...The No. 1 chief objective is... to do everything we can to secure and destroy these chemical weapons," McCaul continued. "My greatest fear as chairman of homeland security is these weapons ending up in the wrong hands - say some al Qaeda jihadists - who we know are there fighting in the rebel forces. And that could be a direct threat not only to Western interests in the Middle East but also directly to the homeland security of the United States."

Though he gauged that Americans don't "have an appetite for troops on the ground in Syria" - an assessment Engel also expressed - McCaul said if the U.S. military advises the president that a missile attack could destroy chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria, "I would support that."

Becoming ever more vital, McCaul and Reed agreed, is gaining Russia's support in eradicating Syria's chemical weapons supply: "We have a shared interest - I do believe that the Russians do not want these chemical weapons used," McCaul said. "But now the relationship between the White House and the Putin administration is so bad and lacks so much credibility that I think that's very difficult.

"...One concern I have is this, sort of, you know, the reset button with Putin reset us back to the Carter administration, where they view us more of a weaker power, not negotiating out of strength but out of weakness," he continued. "And I think that's a real problem here."

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