(CNN) – The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee offered legislation Monday that would allow the United States to provide lethal weapons to the Syrian opposition, a step President Barack Obama has yet to publicaly endorse.
Sen. Robert Menendez's bill would allow U.S.-provided arms, military training and supplies to go to groups that have been vetted and cleared, and establish a $250 million fund to help support a political transition in Syria, where a civil war has been waged for over 2 years.
The bill comes amid reports that chemical weapons have been used in the country. The White House notified lawmakers in April that the United States had established, with "varying degrees of confidence," that a sarin gas attack had taken place in Syria. But over the weekend a U.N. official said evidence points to the use of the deadly nerve agent by Syrian rebel forces, not the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. A spokesman for the Rebel Free Syrian Army disputed those claims.
Menendez, along with a group of other lawmakers, has pushed for greater U.S. involvement in Syria since before the reports of chemical weapons emerged.
"The Assad regime has crossed a red line that forces us to consider all options," Menendez said Monday. "The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world is unfolding in and around Syria, and the U.S. must play a role in tipping the scales toward opposition groups and working to build a free Syria."
Menendez's measure would place new sanctions on supporters of Assad's regime, including nations found to have transferred equipment, arms or oil to the country.
"There will be no greater strategic setback to Iran than to have the Assad regime collapse, and cause a disruption to the terror pipeline between Tehran and Hezbollah in Lebanon," Menendez said.
Republicans and Democrats alike have called on Obama to ramp up support for Syrian rebels, who now receive nonlethal aid like food and medicine from the United States. In early April that aid was stepped up to include equipment such as body armor, night vision goggles and other military equipment that is defensive in nature.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona renewed his call for arming Syrian rebels, saying Obama's "red line" for further action in the country was "apparently written in disappearing ink."
McCain suggested the United States establish a "safe zone" in Syria, take out the government's air assets – "which we can do from long range-no American boots on the ground" – and supply the rebel forces with the weapons they need.
But other lawmakers, including GOP Rep. Peter King, said American arms flowing into Syria could end up in the hands of terrorists.
"Unfortunately, to a large extent, al Qaeda elements have a lot of control within the rebel movements. My concern is that, by arming the rebels, we could be strengthening al Qaeda," King, R-New York, said on CNN's State of the Union. He was echoing concerns voiced to CNN by other U.S. officials, who have said they believe militant groups like al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front are operating in Syria.
Officials also believe Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah units could be operating in the country and potentially infiltrating the rebel opposition.
"If we are going to arm the rebels, we have to make sure that those arms are not going to end up in the possession of al Qaeda supporters, nor at the end game is al Qaeda going to be in a position to take over this movement," King added Sunday.
Obama's administration has cited the potential for American weapons to reach terrorist organizations as a reason not to arm the Syrian rebels. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated those concerns Monday.