Sat 7:12pm: McCain, Graham blast Syrian chemical weapons deal

WASHINGTON – Two Republican senators who are among President Barack Obama’s sharpest foreign policy critics today blasted a Syrian chemical weapons agreement as “an act of provocative weakness” by America that will embolden enemies such as Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.

The House Democratic leader said the deal, under which Syria will be expected to put its stockpile of chemical weapons under international control before they ultimately are destroyed, represented “significant progress” in efforts by the U.S. to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.

“What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement: They see it as an act of provocative weakness on America’s part,” Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. “We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.”

The Obama administration and many lawmakers – including McCain and Graham – blame Syria for the deaths of more than 1,400 people last month in a chemical weapons attack near the capital of Damascus. But the two sides parted company on whether the U.S. should take military action in response, as Obama had said he was prepared to do before he tossed the issue to Congress for a vote.

Many lawmakers opposed the military option, while McCain and Graham were among those supporting it.

But what the two senators do not support is the agreement their former colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, announced today in Geneva after days of tense talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The deal calls for securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and imposing penalties if the government of President Bashar Assad fails to comply with its terms. The agreement was the result of a surprise proposal by Syria’s staunch ally, Russia.

McCain and Graham said a U.N. Security Council resolution, one of the next steps in the process, that doesn’t threaten Assad with the use of force if his government fails to comply will render the agreement meaningless. Senior administration officials said Friday that Obama would be open to a U.N. resolution that omits the threat of military force for failing to abide by the agreement, largely because Russia, a permanent member of the council, would veto any measure that includes a military trigger. Russia has vetoed past attempts by the council to take action against Syria.

The administration officials said Obama retains the authority to launch a strike.