Pete Hoekstra, the former chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, tells Newsmax that any military strike by the U.S. and its allies against Syria must include a limited ground offensive to keep the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons out of the hands of al-Qaida and other radical groups.
Speaking in an exclusive interview late Tuesday, Hoekstra said that Rogers, who holds his old job, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared “very, very confident” when they disclosed during a CNN interview that there is a “high probability” the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad used chemical weapons on its people. Feinstein, a Democrat, chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I think they are probably very confident that Syria crossed the line, and probably it sounds from these two individuals that they’ve got pretty good information to lead them to believe that Syria did use some type of chemical weapons today,” asserted Hoekstra.
“Obviously, they want to get the total verification, but they seem very, very confident.”
Hoekstra, who is on the advisory board of LIGNET, a global intelligence and forecasting service based in Washington, D.C., said that he is far less confident that officials can pinpoint Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical weapons.
“I wouldn’t share the same confidence of knowing — or saying that ‘we know where they are, and that through a military strike we can render them useless,’” he explained. “These things can probably pretty widely disperse. We don’t, I believe, know where they all are.”
As President Obama visits Israel and other Middle East countries this week, Hoekstra predicted that the next 48 hours would be critical in developing a response to Syria — if in fact the regime has used chemical weapons on its people. The use of such weapons has been considered a so-called red line by Obama.
“The White House does have decisions to make — and they’re going to be very, very tough decisions,” Hoekstra said. “I don’t think that right now there is a likely scenario. I’m sure this is why the White House has taken some real time to think about exactly what the response is, consulting with our allies — consulting our allies in the Middle East, our allies in Europe — consulting, hopefully, with the bipartisan leadership in the House and the Senate to map out a strategy in a very, very difficult situation.”
The use of chemical weapons would constitute “a new ballgame” in the two-year-old Syrian uprising, according to the former Michigan congressman.
“We haven’t seen this in probably close to 20 years, since the last time chemical weapons may have been used by Saddam Hussein,” he said, referring to the former Iraqi dictator, who was deposed by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that several NATO countries are working on contingency plans for possible military action to end the civil war in Syria as Assad's regime accused U.S.-backed Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons.
The Obama administration rejected the Assad claim as a sign of desperation by a besieged government intent on drawing attention from its war atrocities — some 70,000 dead, more than 1 million refugees and 2.5 million people internally displaced. A U.S. official said there was no evidence that either Assad forces or the opposition had used chemical weapons in an attack in northern Syria.
Hoekstra said that a military response against Syria cannot be conducted from the air alone.
“There’s going to have to be some kind of a ground element by somebody to secure these weapon caches,” he said. “We saw what happened in Libya. We haven’t really ever learned exactly what happened in Benghazi, but I think the fear is that in Libya . . . we may have lost control of the weapons’ caches.”
While Obama has not said what would happen in the event that Syria crossed the so-called red line, Hoekstra believes that now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to unite in formulating a response.
“It has ramifications not only for Syria,” he said. “It has ramifications for where these weapons may ultimately end up. It has ramifications for Israel and for Jordan.”
While there’s no question that the Assad regime is undesirable, Hoekstra said that it has nevertheless provided “some level of control” over the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
“If the regime collapses there’s a lot of bad folks, additional bad folks in Syria, who may get to these weapons before they can be consolidated and before they can be put under a proper control,” he warned.
“I think there’s no doubt that there are al-Qaida elements and jihadist elements in Syria,” Hoekstra added. “They’re probably one of the more powerful forces in Syria right now because other countries have not stepped up and provided the kind of assistance that the rebels early on might have needed.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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