U.S. can't single-handedly affect change in Syria, lawmakers agree

(CBS News) Bashar al-Assad is a "pathological liar," Gen. Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has dealt with the Syrian president in the past, said Sunday on "Face the Nation." But, he added - 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.

U.S. official claims "very little doubt" Syria used chemical weapons
Syria options weighed as U.S. forces move closer

Senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed, D-R.I., agreed later on the program 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."

As Syria readies for U.N. inspectors to examine the site of a reported mass chemical attack Monday, Reed said U.S. objective heading forward should be "to make it prohibitive for any country to use chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction - so a military option that would be limited to that point is something that [President Obama] should be thinking about very carefully.

"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," Reed said. "That dynamic is going to be long-term, very difficult, and ultimately established and settled by the Syrians, not foreign powers."

There's "no good outcome here," Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said.

"The No. 1 chief objective is... to do everything we can to secure and destroy these chemical weapons," he said. "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."

McCaul said if the U.S. military advises the president that a cruise missile attack could destroy chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria, "I would support that." But, he qualified, "I don't think the American people have an appetite for troops on the ground in Syria."

Becoming ever more critical, the two lawmakers 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."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.