WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to supply arms to rebel forces in Syria has deeply divided members of Congress, including those from Massachusetts, igniting a debate Friday over whether the administration is narrowly responding to a humanitarian crisis or embroiling the United States in another protracted Middle East conflict.
Following US involvement in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the prospect of even limited engagement in Syria has created divisions within the Democrat and Republican parties.
The all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, which often speaks with one voice, included members who favor tougher action, but also warnings against yet another Middle East imbroglio and anguish over the difficult choice.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we need to step up our engagement,” said freshman Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Brookline Democrat, one of the most hawkish voices in the delegation on the issue. Kennedy, for example, said he was open to going further, including imposing a no-fly zone, though with certain conditions. “The 93,000 civilians estimated killed, the use of chemical weapons, is certainly, I think, a game changer.”
The civil war has lasted more than two years. The Obama administration estimates that up to 150 people have been killed by chemical weapons.
But others in the state’s delegation had a decidedly different reaction to the White House announcement that the United States would supply arms to the rebels. The announcement late Thursday came after the United States determined that the Syrian government forces used sarin gas, crossing a line that Obama has long warned would have significant consequences for the regime.
Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said Friday he worried about inching toward further involvement, noting that the conflict seems to be pitting Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the region against each other, much like the sectarian warfare that engulfed Iraq — and the US military — earlier in the decade.
“We’ve got a history of this,” Lynch said. “I’m concerned with us getting entangled in a conflict that is likely to spread beyond Syria.”
The representatives’ two reactions reflected the broader debate in Congress. Some said Obama’s decision to provide arms to the rebels in Syria is too little, too late. Others said the humanitarian situation requires more direct US military intervention, in the form of air strikes or a no-fly zone.
Imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be more difficult than in Libya, analysts said. Libya had an outdated air defense system when a no-fly zone was imposed by the United States and its allies in 2011. The allies also bombed Libyan government forces and facilities to assist antigovernment forces, and there were no US military losses.
Syria could be a tougher challenge. Earlier this year, Air Force Magazine said Syria has 450 combat aircraft, sophisticated antiaircraft capability, and as many as 50 mobile surface-to-air missile systems. Syria’s army is also better equipped than Libya’s and is being supported by outside forces.
Another worry is the size of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which the Pentagon has estimated would require up to 75,000 troops to secure under some circumstances.
Some in Congress also worry that even the limited step of providing small arms and ammunition to the Free Syrian Army and other groups locked in a civil war with the regime of President Bashar Assad could result in US-supplied weapons ending up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists or other American enemies. Or they caution that such steps could drag the United States into a wider war with Iran and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Still others acknowledged they are not sure what position to take. Among those was Representative William R. Keating, a Bourne Democrat.
“There’s a reason the administration has been going so slowly because it’s a series of no-win situations,” Keating said.
The two candidates seeking John F. Kerry’s former Senate seat — Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, and Gabriel Gomez, a Republican and former Navy SEAL — issued statements applauding Obama’s announcement, though Gomez called for a stronger intervention.
Markey called Assad’s use of chemical weapons “a crime against humanity” and said he supported “providing arms to carefully vetted elements of the resistance.” Markey was also open to evaluating a no-fly zone, but cautioned that it could bring America more directly into the conflict.
Gomez said “stability in the Middle East requires removing Assad from power.” He said he supported Obama’s actions and repeated an earlier call for a no-fly zone. He also said he was open to committing ground troops as “a very last resort.”
Obama has been under growing pressure for months to help the opposition in Syria — including from within his own circle. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, and her replacement, Kerry, lobbied for a more active role. Some voices in Congress, including Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who supports a no-fly zone, have criticized Obama for being too cautious.
The United States has been providing nonlethal support for the rebels, including communications equipment, and has also provided millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for some of the nearly 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
Some analysts said the United States will have to do more than provide arms to make a difference, given that rebel forces have lost momentum against the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies.
Retired Army General Jack Keane, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Advisory Board, said the United States must send heavier weapons to the rebels, such as antitank and antiaircraft missiles.
Keane said the United States could diminish Assad’s air power by destroying planes, airfields, and other infrastructure built by Iran and Russia. “What would need to be done is you would have to take away the use of his air power,” Keane said.
But such a potential escalation worries some members of Congress. “I understand the political impulse for wanting to do something,” said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat. “I just want to make sure whatever we do is constructive. I don’t want to get sucked into another war.”
McGovern said that while Assad has violated international law by using chemical weapons, “that’s an international responsibility, not just a US responsibility,” he said.
Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said, “I don’t know what the right limit” of involvement is. But he had many questions. “Anytime you escalate an endeavor, of course it brings risks of broader conflict. But that’s already there. The question is: Can we help it? Can we limit it? And is it worth it in the long run?”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.