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As Obama appears closer to Syria response, Congress now urges caution

 

As the Obama administration appears closer to making a strong response to more reported war-related atrocities by the Syrian government, Congress cautioned the president Sunday about a full-scale intervention.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told "Fox News Sunday" that he thinks the president will respond soon with military action.

However, he suggested waiting until Congress returns next week to seek its authorization and that the United States respond “in a surgical way.” 

“I hope the president will … do something in a very surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention,” he said. “At the same time, I hope it's the kind of action that doesn't move us away from the policy we have right now where we want to see the Syrian opposition group taking the lead on the ground.”

Corker’s comments followed a top Obama administration official saying there is "very little doubt" Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces used a chemical weapon on civilians Wednesday near Damascus, killing at least 100 people.

The announcement came as the Syrian government appeared close to allowing United Nations inspectors to visit the site of the reported attack and a U.N. spokesperson saying an inspection team is preparing to conduct an on-site fact-finding mission Monday.

Corker was joined on the show by New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who called the alleged civilian attacks last week “horrific" and urged the U.S. to respond with its NATO allies.

“But we have to move, and we have to move now,” Engel said.

Their comments come after almost a year of lawmakers pressing Obama to make good on his statement about Syria “crossing a red line” by using chemical weapons.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested Friday that the Pentagon might move naval forces closer to Syria in preparation for a possible decision by Obama to order military strikes.

However, U.S. defense officials have said the Navy has already sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with lawmakers saying the best strategy now might by using Cruise missiles fired from off shore.

Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the chamber’s Armed Services Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” the United States cannot let itself get into a situation in Syria “where this becomes a springboard for a general military option."

"We have to verify (the chemical attack) was directed by the Assad regime because that will allow us to build an international coalition, which is absolutely necessary to take any more steps in Syria,” he added.

Syrian allies on Sunday also reportedly warned the United States about taking military action. Russia’s foreign ministry warned the U.S. about repeating the “mistakes of the past” and said unilateral military action against Syria will have a “devastating impact” on Middle East stability.

Massoud Jazayeri, Iran’s deputy chief of staff for armed forces, warns the U.S. about crossing a "red line" on Syria, saying such action would have "severe consequences," according to Reuters.

The reports of thousands killed or stricken by chemical weapons last week is the latest allegation about such tactics in the Middle East country’s roughly 2-year-long civil war.

The White House has been reluctant to take direct military actions, instead supplying rebel forces with non-lethal aid, weighing military options and trying to garner international support.

The administration official said Sunday that the U.S. intelligence community made the assessment about likely chemical use based on "the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured and witness accounts."

The official said the White House also thinks Assad and his forces originally denied United Nations investigators immediate access to the site of the reported attack to give the evidence time to degrade. In addition, the White House thinks any inspection now will be too late, the official said.

The administration statement follows a meeting Saturday between President Obama and his National Security Council that concluded with the White House saying the administration was still “gathering facts.”

The official spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

The reports of thousands killed or stricken by chemical weapons last week is the latest allegation about such tactics in the Middle East country’s roughly 2-year-long civil war.

The White House meeting was attended by at least 15 members of the president’s security council, including Hagel, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, but it was unclear who was in the Oval Office. In addition to the president holding the meeting, he spoke this weekend about the international crisis with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande.

Syrian state media accused rebels of using chemical arms against government troops in clashes Saturday near Damascus, while Doctors Without Borders said it has tallied 355 deaths from the purported chemical weapons attack on Wednesday. 

The international aid group said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" over less than three hours on Wednesday morning when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place. Of those, 355 died. 

U.S. confirmation took more than four months after rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, though in this instance a U.N. chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria. Assad's government, then as now, has denied the claims as baseless.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.