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US Lawmakers Urge Arming Syrian Government Opposition

Senator John McCain listens during a news conference to discuss a Congressional resolution condemning the government of Syria for crimes against humanity and supporting the right of the people of Syria to be safe and to defend themselves, on Capitol Hill

U.S. lawmakers are urging a more active U.S. role to topple Syria’s dictatorship, including arming opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

Republican Senator John McCain said the United States must not remain on the sidelines while thousands of Syrian civilians are killed.

“How many [Syrians] have to die before the United States will take a leadership role in trying to end the mass slaughter that is taking place in Syria?”

McCain and five other senators introduced a congressional resolution decrying bloodshed in Syria and urging the United States to help create safe havens for civilians and to arm opponents of the Assad government. Joining McCain was independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who derided suggestions that President Assad’s downfall is inevitable.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Well, Assad is going to go. It is just a matter of time.’ Well, we are all going to go, one day. Right now I would say, based on the disproportionate availability of weapons and the willingness of the Assad regime to use them against the Syrian people, Assad will go of natural causes before he is eliminated from office,” said Lieberman.

The senators spoke following reports of new assaults by Syrian troops against rebel strongholds, and one day after Syria accepted an international peace plan that includes a ceasefire, and dialogue between the government and rebel forces. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham noted the plan does not specify Assad’s departure from power.

“This whole idea of trying to engage the Assad regime with a ceasefire agreement that allows him to stay should be offensive to every Syrian who has been raped, murdered, slaughtered, and family members who have been abused. And it should be offensive to the free world as a whole. There is nothing to negotiate, but [except] this guy leaving,” said Graham.

Senators stressed the resolution does not call for the deployment of U.S. troops in Syria, nor does it authorize the use of military force. While urging the Obama administration to work with other governments to boost the ability of members of the Syrian opposition to defend themselves, the resolution does not specify how the goal should be met. This is by design, said Republican Senator Jon Kyl.

“The president [Barack Obama] has a certain amount of leeway and authority here, and we respect that. But we hope that by urging him to take these actions and by putting the Senate on the record to back him up, he will have the support he thinks he needs to do this.”

McCain noted that supplying arms to fighters in faraway lands is something the United States has done successfully in the past.

“We somehow managed to get weapons to the Afghan resistance in the Afghan war against Russia [in the 1980s]. We somehow were able to get weapons to the Libyans [last year]. I am sure there are ways that weapons can be gotten to the Syrian resistance,” said McCain.

If passed by Congress, the resolution would not force the Obama administration to take any specific steps. Rather, it would express the will of the legislature and affirm congressional backing for any future actions. Administration officials have said Assad’s days are numbered, and he must leave power, but his downfall may not be imminent and that events in a post-Assad Syria are difficult to predict.