Influential US Senator Calls for Air Strikes on Syria

Senator John McCain talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, March 5, 2012.
Senator John McCain talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, March 5, 2012.
Michael Bowman

An influential U.S. senator is calling for U.S.-led military intervention in Syria to stem the slaughter of civilians, assist rebels, and hasten the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad. Republican John McCain of Arizona, who was President Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, made an impassioned plea for air strikes in Syria, with or without U.N. authorization.

Senator McCain condemned the continuing bloodshed in Syria, and blasted the Obama administration’s assertion that President Assad’s departure from power is inevitable.

“Nothing in this world is predetermined, and claims about the inevitability of events can often be a convenient way to abdicate responsibility," said McCain. "But even if we do assume that Assad will ultimately fall, that may still take a really long time.”

McCain said the Syrian government serves as a “forward operating base” of Iran and a direct backer of international terrorism. He said President Assad has Syrian blood on his hands, as well as that of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq by foreign infiltrators who entered the country through Syria.

The senator argued that current U.S. policy is inadequate and that a new, more aggressive policy is needed. He said military intervention is consistent with the Obama administration’s stated policy of preventing mass atrocities.

“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," he said. "To be clear, this will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.”

Last month, the Obama administration said it still supports a political resolution of the crisis. But it said the Assad government's assault on the Syrian people is "heinous and unforgivable" and will require the United States to evaluate its approach "as time goes on." State Department officials have confidently predicted Mr. Assad’s ouster, but have said a transition in Syria could be long and difficult.

Senator McCain said the United States should partner with allies in the Arab world as well as NATO to establish safe havens in Syria for anti-Assad forces as well as for the delivery of humanitarian and military supplies.

He noted that U.N. action toward Syria has been stymied by Russia and China, but he argued that the United Nations need not give its blessing for a military campaign to go forward.

“Let us not forget: NATO took military action to save Kosovo in 1999 without formal U.N. authorization," said McCain. "There is no reason why the Arab League or NATO or a leading coalition within the ‘Friends of Syria’ contact group could not provide a similar international mandate for military measures to save Syria today.”

McCain acknowledged that military intervention in Syria would entail significant risks. But he argued there are no perfect options when it comes to dealing with President Assad, only the opportunity to serve long-range U.S. interests by siding with Syrian government opponents.

Other senators have called for arming Syrian rebels, but so far have stopped short of calling for air strikes.

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