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Republicans question whether Syria deal has enough teeth

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers speaks at the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers speaks at the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Caren Bohan and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leading U.S. Republican lawmakers voiced skepticism on Sunday about whether a deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons could work without a credible threat of force pressuring the Syrian government to comply.

The agreement, reached on Saturday after talks between the United States and Russia, calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to account for his chemical stockpile within a week and allow for international inspections by the middle of next year.

"If the president believes, like I do, that a credible military force helps you get a diplomatic solution, they gave that away in this deal. I'm really concerned about that," Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN.

"Not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield but we've given up every ounce of our leverage when it comes to trying to solve the broader Syrian problem because we've taken away a credible military threat," said Rogers, a Michigan lawmaker.

Obama said on Saturday that the United States "remains prepared to act" should diplomatic efforts fail in Syria.

Republicans have been highly critical of Obama's handling of the Syria crisis, calling his policy muddled. He made a surprise decision two weeks ago to seek authorization from the U.S. Congress for a military strike after an August 21 chemical attack in Syria.

But he faced strong resistance from lawmakers and decided last week to explore a possible weapons deal proposed by Russia.

"I think we should be skeptical until we see how this unfolds," said Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Corker said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a "weak hand" when he went to Geneva to negotiate the deal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Senator John McCain, who has pushed for deeper U.S. involvement in Syria, criticized the accord, saying it gives Russia the power to effectively determine Syria's compliance.

"I think it's a loser because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven't had since the 1970s," McCain said on the NBC program "Meet the Press."

"We are now depending on the goodwill of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement," he said. "I am of the firm belief, given his record, that it's a very big gamble."

Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, was cautious on the deal.

"If it works, then they get rid of chemical weapons without use of force," he said.

But Menendez added that if Assad does not comply, "we're back to where we started except Assad has bought more time on the battlefield and has continued to ravage innocent civilians."

Some other Democrats said the agreement was a hopeful sign.

"I don't know that I trust the Russians but I think this agreement is a very positive step," said Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and member of the House Intelligence Committee.

The agreement states that a Security Council resolution should allow for regular assessments of Syria's behavior and "in the event of non-compliance ... the U.N. Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter."

Chapter VII can include force but can be limited to other kinds of sanction.

(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen; Editing by Bill Trott)

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