Sheryl Gay Stolberg

WASHINGTON: Lawmakers in both parties on Sunday urged President Barack Obama to take stronger action in the Syrian civil war, with some Republicans calling for Obama to arm rebel troops and possibly establish a no-fly zone, and some Democrats urging the administration to step up humanitarian assistance.

The lawmakers’ remarks, on the Sunday morning television talk shows that are a public policy staple in the capital, followed revelations that the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, had likely used chemical weapons against his own people. Obama has said that the use of such weapons would be a “red line” that would prompt a U.S. response, and said Friday that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would be “a game changer.”

But just what the response should be seemed a matter of debate on Sunday. Republicans and Democrats agreed that the U.S. should not send in ground troops, but beyond that they, like the White House, seemed to be wrestling with what course the administration should take, and what role other countries ought to play.

Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, Republicans who tend to see eye to eye on national security matters, both said they opposed putting “boots on the ground” in Syria. McCain, who has called for establishing a no-fly zone to neutralize Syria’s air defenses, said on Meet the Press on NBC that “the worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria — that would turn the people against us.”

Graham, in particular, criticized the administration for what he characterized as an overly cautious response, providing only nonlethal aid to rebel forces. He warned that inaction in Syria would have dire consequences across the Middle East, by sending a message to Iran that the U.S. will tolerate a nuclear buildup in that country.

“If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program,” Graham said.

He added, “There’s nothing you can do in Syria without risk, but greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists and they’re pouring into Syria.”

Democrats speaking on the Sunday shows, including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, seemed less inclined to step up military aid and more focused on providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians.

“I believe the United States could play a greater role in dealing with the humanitarian crisis,” Ellison said on Meet the Press. “We have spillage and refugees in Jordan, in Lebanon, and internally displaced people in Syria. The suffering is intense, and I don’t think the world’s greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and not do anything.”