March 20, 2013

U.S. commander: Contingency plans under way for Syria

Donna Cassata and Richard Lardner / The Associated Press

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Russia, which has steadfastly supported Assad in Syria's civil war, on Tuesday backed Assad's assertion of a chemical attack.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. is looking carefully at all allegations but that the Obama administration is "deeply skeptical" of any claims emanating from Assad's regime.

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said the U.S. wouldn't stand by if it turns out the regime used chemical weapons, but he declined to say whether he believed the reports could be true.

"If this is substantiated, it does suggest ... that this is a game-changer. And we will act accordingly," McDonough told CNN. "This is something we take very, very seriously."

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said he thought there was a "high probability" the Assad government had used chemical weapons, although it was not clear whether he was referring to the attack in northern Syria. "We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used," Rogers told CNN.

Syria has one of the world's largest arsenals of chemical weapons and Washington has been on high alert since last year for any possible use or transfer of chemical weapons by Assad's forces. It feared that an increasingly desperate regime might turn to the stockpiles in a bid to defeat the rebellion or transfer dangerous agents to militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, which the Syrian government has long supported.

At the time, officials noted movement of some of the Syrian stockpiles but said none appeared to be deployed for imminent use. Still, President Barack Obama declared the use, deployment or transfer of the weapons to be his "red line" for possible military intervention in the Arab country.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee, raised the prospect of deploying U.S. troops to Syria to secure the stockpile of chemical weapons.

"If the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get into the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it's a problem," Graham told a group of reporters. "This administration's handling of Syria is going to cause incredible problems in the Mideast and compromise our national security."

But another member of the committee, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the United States "should take every step that we can short of boots on the ground."

At a separate congressional hearing, António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the international community faces a "tipping point" in Syria, with a fast-moving refugee crisis.

The number of refugees arriving in neighboring countries has jumped to 14,000 in a 24-hour period, up from 3,000 in December, 5,000 in January and 8,000 in February, Guterres said. Lebanon has 360,000 registered Syrians, Jordan more than 350,000 and Turkey some 260,000.

"The refugee crisis has been accelerating since last summer, and has reached staggering proportions since the beginning of this year," Guterres told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. He said the world community needs "to be prepared for things to get worse before they get better."

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