Sen. Bob Casey added his name Friday to a growing list of lawmakers urging the White House to take some form of military action against Syria in the wake of new evidence that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
Casey, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated his support for surface-to-surface missile strikes designed to weaken Syria's air force, one of the regime's key tactical advantages over rebels in the conflict.
"[U.S] planes or boots on the ground are a real problem for us, I don't think we need to go there," Casey said Friday during a stop in Allentown. "But missiles, I think that's an option. If the Pentagon thinks that's a bad idea, they need to start telling the American people why. If they want to rebut what I am saying, they need to engage in that. But this kind of head scratching, it just hasn't been strategic enough and comprehensive enough."
The Obama administration said Thursday in a letter to key lawmakers that U.S. intelligence officials now believe with "varying degrees of confidence" that the Assad government used sarin gas in the two-year-old civil war. British, French and Israeli intelligence agencies have reached similar conclusions.
The White House has stopped short of threatening a military response, but continues to push for a comprehensive U.N. investigation to gather definitive evidence on the use of chemical weapons, which it has described as a "red line."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he's still weighing the appropriate reaction, but thinks the United States needs to do something.
"The president of the United States said repeatedly that [using] chemical weapons is a bright red line and unacceptable," Toomey said. "It is now the opinion of the administration that the red line has been crossed, so there has to be a response if the U.S. is going to be credible. There are other countries watching very closely, including Iran and North Korea."
Unlike Libya, Syria has a robust air defense system, making air strikes from jets like the ones deployed by NATO in 2011 to weaken Moammar Gadhafi unadvisable, Casey said. Missiles fired from ships offer an alternative without risking pilots' lives.
But by limiting its involvement to date, the United States risks alienating the Syrian opposition, which is receiving aid from a small contingent of Islamic militants, Casey said. He said he witnessed that danger personally on a trip to a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey, a couple of weeks ago.
Refugees there told him the opposition desperately needs tactical help from the United States and that they don't believe that's happening.
"They don't feel we are in solidarity with them in terms of changing the dynamic," Casey said. "You could not only have a good result on the ground by degrading [the Syrian] air force, but it would show the opposition that we are really trying to end the conflict and end the bloodshed and move them forward."
Islamic militants have been adept at deflecting secular opposition leaders' fears that they would seek to dominate the country's new government if Assad is overthrown, while simultaneously promoting the ways they have been helping the opposition, Casey said.
Missile strikes, which he first suggested in December, would shorten the duration of the war, demonstrate U.S. support for the opposition, and ease the strain refugees are placing on surrounding countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon by bringing the conflict to a conclusion more quickly, Casey said.
"One of the only ways militarily you can change the dynamic on the ground is to take out some of their aircraft," Casey said.
It could be done by the United States, or the United States in coalition with partners and perhaps NATO, he explained.
In Libya, the United States used Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. and British warships to weaken the country's air defense system before conducting air strikes.
Casey introduced legislation with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on March 19 that would create a comprehensive Syria policy that includes increased humanitarian aid, expanded non-lethal assistance to rebel forces and economic sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged April 21 that the United States would double its non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition to $250 million.
While he's not a fan of putting ground troops in Syria, Casey said some kind of multinational commando force will eventually have to be sent in to secure chemical weapon stockpiles, assuming they are verified. The Pentagon has offered to do that, The New York Times reported Friday.
"There is going to have to be some kind of unified effort to secure [chemical weapons]," Casey said. "I don't know how it will happen or when, but I think that will be a necessary component."
The United Nations estimated in February that more than 70,000 people have died in the conflict since it began in March 2011.