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US Intelligence on Syria Yet to Sway Wavering Senators

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Sept. 5, 2013, following a closed-door briefing with national security officials on the situation in Syria.
U.S. intelligence on Syria presented to senators in secret Thursday strengthened the resolve of those already backing a military strike but failed to lead wavering lawmakers to declare their support. Inside the closed-door hearing, the senators heard from U.S. field operatives brought to Capitol Hill to strengthen to case for punishing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Emerging from the classified briefing Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said the evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria was far more persuasive than what lawmakers were provided before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“The intelligence is different. It is much better. It is conclusive on the fact that these weapons were used [in Syria],” she said.

Last week, Feinstein expressed hope that the international community would punish Syria for last month’s attacks that killed more than 1,400 people. But with no broad coalition materializing, she said the United States must act.

“Once the [Obama] administration made this call, I think there is a real need for us to back it up, or America becomes a paper tiger,” said Feinstein.

Feinstein said she was lobbying fellow senators to vote for a resolution - already approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - authorizing the use of force against Syria.

Other senators were non-committal before the intelligence briefing, and remained so afterwards.

“This is not a choice between doing nothing and a military strike. There are other ways to put pressure internationally on the Assad regime. So I have not yet reached the conclusion on how I will vote,” said Republican Susan Collins.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden was also undecided.

“The evidence that Assad engaged in the barbaric use of chemical weapons is clear. What the effects of a military strike will be is not clear,” he said.

Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski said she had “more questions than answers” about a military strike. She ridiculed what she viewed as the international community’s tepid response to events in Syria.

“I want to know where the hell is the U.N.," she said. "Are they always there when you do not need them?”

By contrast, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss said action was overdue. “I have been in support of taking action since day one,” he said.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the resolution authorizing the use of force next week. The measure calls for degrading Syria’s military capabilities, but specifically proscribes the deployment of U.S. ground forces there. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is considering a similar measure, but no date has been set for a vote in that chamber of Congress.