(CNN) – The people of Syria, beleaguered by war and potentially being attacked by chemical weapons, are “angry and bitter” that the United States has not played a more leading role in ending the country’s conflict, Sen. John McCain said Sunday.
Long an advocate of a more pronounced American effort in Syria, McCain described the disappointment he saw while visiting a Syrian refugee camp in neighboring Jordan.
“This woman who was a schoolteacher said, ‘Sen. McCain, do you see these children here? They're going to take revenge on those people who refused to help them,’ ” McCain recalled on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They’re angry and bitter. And that legacy could last for a long time too, unless we assist them.”
Last week, the White House told lawmakers in a letter that intelligence analysts have concluded "with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin."
But the analysis was characterized as preliminary, with the White House saying the "chain of custody" of the chemicals was not clear and that intelligence analysts could not confirm the circumstances under which the sarin was used, including the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” threshold for greater U.S. action in the country, which McCain argued was coming too late.
“For about two years this situation has deteriorated in a very alarming fashion, affected the surrounding countries, destabilized Lebanon, destabilized Jordan, and has had implications and repercussions throughout the region,” McCain said.
On Friday, Obama noted again that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues.”
But he said the intelligence gathered on potential use of sarin was still too preliminary to be conclusive.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued that once a red line has been drawn it must be adhered to.
“I think putting aside the question of exactly what we do, once we announce there's a red line, if we don't take it seriously, we are discrediting ourselves in not just Syria, but Iran, North Korea, all around the world,” Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. “How much proof do you need?”
Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state, said Obama was in a difficult situation.
“He was right to make those warnings in the last several months because use of chemical weapons is a war crime under the chemical weapons convention,” Burns said, also on CNN. “I think he's right to be prudent and cautious. We got in a situation in 2003 in Iraq and didn't have all our facts together and went to war in part on an erroneous basis. So he's right to be cautious.”
“But when you draw a line in the sand in the Middle East and you dare someone to cross it and they appear to have crossed it, there have been to be consequences,” he added. “And our credibility as a country is very important.”