Susan Davis and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The chairman and ranking member of the Senate's Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday indicated support for U.S. punitive strikes on Syria for using chemical weapons, bolstering the Obama administration's call for military action.
If the United States does not respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons, it will send a signal of weakness to ruthless regimes around the world, the committee's said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., opened his panel's hearing on the Obama administration's case for military action in Syria by calling the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians and at least 426 children "sickening."
The hearing was the first in which administration officials made their case against Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to show why it was necessary for the United States to act against Bashar Assad's government in the face of ongoing skepticism from a divided Congress.
A U.S. military response is critical, Menendez said.
"The images of that day were sickening," Menendez said. "In my view the world cannot ignore the inhumanity and the horror of this act."
Failing to answer the attack will embolden America's adversaries, including Iran, North Korea and terrorists elsewhere, Menendez said.
"Our friends and allies await our decisions, as does the despot in Pyongyang, the Ayatollahs of terror in Tehran, and terrorist groups wherever they may be," Menendez said. "What we do in the face of the chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent civilians will send a signal to the world that such weapons, in violation of international law, cannot be used with impunity."
Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking committee Republican from Tennessee, said he was inclined to support the use of force in Syria. But he said the administration must do more to support rebel forces there.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced at the hearing that she would support the effort, an indication that backing for the resolution is growing.
Boxer, a liberal Democrat, opposed the 2002 authorization of the Iraq War but she said comparing the two votes was unfair, in part because the Senate resolution will make clear that it is limited engagement with no troops on the ground.
"I will support a targeted effort but not a blank check against Syria gassing its people to death," Boxer said.
Kerry blamed Assad for the attack, saying his government prepared for it and warned its troops to protect themselves from the toxins.
"It did happen," Kerry said. "And the Assad regime did it."
Kerry, a former chairman of the foreign relations committee, said neither he nor Hagel, another former senator, would ask the Senate to vote based on faulty intelligence. Their intelligence, Kerry said, was definitive.
Kerry and Hagel are both decorated veterans of the Vietnam War.
Hagel told senators that the objective of military action would be to hold Syria's government accountable for using chemical weapons, degrade its ability to mount more attacks and deter it and other adversaries such as Iran and North Korea from using weapons of mass destruction.
The hearing was interrupted by protesters who were escorted from the hearing room.
On Wednesday, the committee will hold a second, closed hearing on classified information regarding the decision to engage in Syria because the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the nation's ongoing civil war. Hagel and Dempsey will hold another closed-door hearing for members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the morning.
Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey are also scheduled to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Syria.
Tuesday's hearing is part of a sweeping effort by Obama to build congressional support for military strikes. Also Tuesday, Obama met privately at the White House with key congressional committee leaders as well as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Boehner emerged from that meeting saying he would vote in favor of using force in Syria, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., issued a statement saying, "I intend to vote to provide the president of the United States the option to use military force in Syria."
Congress remains out of session until Sept. 9, but both the House and Senate are scheduled to vote next week on authorization resolutions, which are still being drafted.
"The public doesn't understand our strategy. I'm trying, along with Sen. McCain, to make sure we get Syria as right as possible given the really bad options," Graham told CNN's New Day.