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Lawmakers urge action, caution in Syria conflict

As the Obama administration grapples with evidence that chemical weapons may have been used in conflict-torn Syria, officials on both sides of the political aisle urged President Barack Obama Sunday to move towards arming rebels against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a position once rejected by a White House reluctant to commit to military involvement in the rebellion.  

Sen. Patrick Leahy and fellow Capitol Hill leaders discuss the U.S. strategy moving forward in Syria.

But lawmakers also warned that U.S. forces must be careful that weapons do not fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups.  

"Our problem in who to supply is that some of these groups are strong Islamists, Al Qaeda and others," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And we've seen -- like in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere -- that Islamists tend to get the upper hand if they get in there."

"If we know the right people to get them, my guess is we'll get [weapons] to them," he added.

Former House Homeland Security chair Rep. Peter King, a Republican, similarly warned on CNN's State of the Union program that Al Qaeda has "a lot of control within the rebel movement."

"Obviously Assad is evil, and everyone’s interested he go," King said. "But if we are going to arm the rebels, we have to make sure that those arms are not going to end up in the position of Al Qaeda supporters, nor at the end game is Al Qaeda going to be in a position to take over this movement.”

Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed optimism on NBC's Meet the Press that "we are moving closer to arming the reform-minded pro-Western rebels."

"This is something that should have been done many months ago," he added, also voicing support for a no-fly zone using aircraft and naval gunfire. 

Former Rep. Jane Harman, who now serves as the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told NBC's David Gregory that there's "no chance" that the United States will have "boots on the ground" in Syria but that the complexities of the region's humanitarian and security issues must be addressed  with support for the rebels. 

NBC's Martin Fletcher has more on the developing situation in Syria.

"This is a big, escalated problem," Harman added. "I wish we had acted sooner."

Obama said last August that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line" that - if crossed - would "change my calculus" on military intervention in the region.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized," the president said at the time. 

A new report Sunday from the New York Times indicated that some Obama advisers were taken aback by that "unscripted" comment.

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