WASHINGTON -- Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Sunday refused to rule out the possibility of deploying American troops to Syria, while top Republican lawmakers called for increased U.S. intervention in the civil war there. The comments, made on various Sunday television programs, reflect an increased sense of urgency this week about the potential use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
"I don't think you want to ever rule it out," McCaskill said of U.S. troop involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives over two years. Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," McCaskill, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "We don't want to [deploy U.S. troops] unless it's absolutely necessary, [but] I don't think you ever want to say absolutely not."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a more cautionary tack on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria," said McCain, who is a longtime advocate of greater American intervention in the Syrian conflict. He instead called on the U.S. to help establish "a safe zone," and to begin arming the Syrian rebels, to whom the U.S. has so far provided only nonlethal aid.
McCain also called for increased aid from Washington to assist with the growing refugee crisis in the region, and said the U.S. should help prepare an "international force" capable of securing Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons in the event Syrian President Bashar Assad is removed from power.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), appearing alongside McCaskill on "Face the Nation," said monitoring those chemical weapons was a top priority for the United States and the international community. "The greatest risk [to the U.S.] is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists," Graham said. "The longer [the conflict] goes, the more likely it is that you have a failed state, and all hell's going to break loose in the region."
Senators learned this week that American intelligence agencies have evidence that Assad's regime has deployed chemical weapons, but White House officials cautioned that this evidence is still being evaluated.
McCaskill, too, said the United States should be "ready if we need to take some kind of military action," but did not explicitly endorse sending weapons to the Syrian rebels, nor did she mention the creation of a "safe zone," as McCain advocated.
Graham appeared to go further than McCain or McCaskill in proposing direct U.S. action in Syria, saying, "One way you can stop the Syrian Air Force from flying is to bomb Syrian air bases with missiles. You don't need to go deep into Syria to do that." He said Assad's forces' aerial capabilities play a major role in the conflict, and "if you could neutralize the air advantage the Syrian government has over the rebels, I think you could turn the tide of battle pretty quickly."
President Obama said last year that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime was a "red line" for the U.S. and would have "enormous consequences." But late this week, White House officials sounded a cautious note, telling reporters on a background call, "If we reach a definitive determination that this red line has been crossed [we will be] consulting with our friends and allies and the international community more broadly, as well as the Syrian opposition, to determine what the best course of action is."
For House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the currently available evidence is conclusive, he said on ABC's "This Week."
"We have classified evidence, [which] strengthens the case [that] some amount of chemical weapons have been used over the last two years," he said, while acknowledging that "the options aren't huge, but some action needs to be taken."