Sen. John McCain on Monday became the first U.S. lawmaker to call for air strikes against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, putting the influential Arizona Republican in front of the Obama administration in calling for American troop involvement in the year-long struggle between the dictator and Syrian citizens.
“The time has come for a new policy,” McCain said in a Senate floor speech Monday afternoon in which he compared Syrian violence to war crimes in the Balkans and Russia’s annihilation of Grozny in Chechnya.
“Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign air power,” he said.
“The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through air strikes on Assad’s forces,” McCain said. “To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.”
McCain, the most senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, recently traveled to the region but heretofore had called only for arming the opposition, a position the administration has been reluctant to embrace as much is still not known about the composition of the rebel groups, saying terrorists could possibly be among them.
But McCain said air strikes would enable allies “to establish and defend safe havens in Syria” that would “serve as platforms” for the delivery of aid and intelligence, and would give the allies a leg up on deciding which factions to back on the ground.
With an estimated 7,500 lives lost so far in the brutal government crackdown, the U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford issued a Facebook post Monday on the U.S.’ Damascus Embassy page saying the U.S. “is trying as hard as it can to show the world it knows what is occurring in Syria.”
Ford, who left the country late last year over “security fears,” said allies operating under the Friends of Syria banner are calling for a strong U.N. Security Council Resolution that would require the Assad regime to uphold commitments made last year to the Arab League to end violence against civilians, withdraw from cities and residential areas, allow access for monitors and journalists and release political prisoners.
So far, the Arab League and the United Nations have been unable to get Assad to step down.
Ford said the U.S. will provide millions in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in neighboring nations and Syrians inside of Syria — if the aid can get into the country.
McCain said Monday the Friends of Syria contact group has been “a good step in principle” but has produced “mostly rhetoric but precious little action.”
“Unfortunately, with each passing day, the international response to Assad’s atrocities is being overtaken by events on the ground in Syria,” McCain said.
“Assad needs to know that he will not win. … Foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to reinforce this,” he said.
McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war, was also out in front pushing for aid to rebel forces who gradually seized control of parts of Libya before dictator Muammar Qaddafi and his regime were toppled. The senator traveled to the war-torn African nation and called for not only arming the opposition, but also bringing in U.S. firepower.
McCain said that Syria’s serving as “the main forward operating base of the Iranian regime;” its threat to Israel through the support of Palestinian terrorist groups and “its large stockpiles of chemical weapons and materials” makes it even more strategic than Libya.
“Put simply, the United States has a clear national security interest in stopping the violence in Syria and forcing Assad to leave power. In this way, Syria is very different than Libya: The stakes are far higher, both for America and some of our closest allies,” he said.
It is unclear if McCain’s remarks will receive support in a war-weary nation, as the U.S. has withdrawn forces from Iraq and is on track to draw down forces from Afghanistan over the next two years. Speaking about Iran on Sunday, President Obama said there has been too much “loose talk of war.”
But one key McCain ally, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Monday that more needs to be done in Syria.
“We must do more to help them overthrow Bashar’s evil dictatorship and end his campaign of slaughter. We can no longer stand passively by. We must do more to speed the day when the people of Syria and the people of Iran will again be free,” said Lieberman, speaking at the American-Israeli Political Action Committee conference.