Kerry and Hagel in Congress
John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel Secretary of Defense at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington September 3, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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A failure to take action over Syria's use of chemical weapons would damage the credibility America's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Tuesday.

"A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments - including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Hagel told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the authorization of the use of military force in Syria.

"The word of the United States must mean something," he said.

"If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, could acquire them," Hagel warned.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that U.S. President Barack Obama is not asking the United States to go to war but to authorize him to "degrade and deter" Syria's capability to use chemical weapons. He also stressed that U.S. silence would be an invitation to Assad to use chemical weapons again.

"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He is asking for authorization to degrade and deter (Syrian President) Bashar Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons."

The top U.S. military officer told Congress on that he had not been asked to change the momentum in the Syrian conflict, but instead develop options to degrade Assad's military capabilities.

"I have never been told to change the momentum. I have been told to degrade capability," General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate.

However, Kerry also said it is important not to limit Obama's authority to attack Syria to a single instance, saying congress should not deprive the U.S. military of options.

"It would be important for Assad himself to know that you have not limited this [authorization] to one specific moment with respect to chemical weapons," he said.

"You can still have the limited authorization. But with respect to chemical weapons, it would be a huge mistake to deprive General Dempsey and company of their options to enforce what we're trying to achieve." 

Russia may hike military assistance to Syria should the United States strike, Dempsey said, adding, however, that was not a reason in his view to hesitate to act.

"There is some indication that [the Russians] have assured the regime that if we destroy something, they can replace it," he said. 

Obama announced on Saturday that he would seek congressional authorization for punitive military action against Syria after an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians on August 21.

The administration has been making its case for a strike through telephone calls, meetings, briefings and conference calls with lawmakers.