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US Senators Urge Stronger Response to Syria Crisis

Senator John McCain speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 22, 2013, about the situation in Syria.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators wants the Obama administration to boost direct assistance to Syrian opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, help neighboring countries care for Syrian refugees, and increase pressure for regime change in Damascus.

Republican Senator John McCain led a delegation of lawmakers that recently returned from a trip to the Middle East and Afghanistan. At a news conference Tuesday, McCain relayed messages the group received from Syrian opposition leaders and refugees.

“We heard desperate pleas for U.S. support and assistance," said McCain. "There was a desire for weapons and ammunition, for a no-fly zone, and for our government to channel humanitarian assistance - not to international NGOs as the [Obama] administration is currently doing but rather directly through the Syrian opposition coalition - which would strengthen its legitimacy and capacity.”

Several senators said they were struck by the growing anger expressed by refugees who believe the United States is doing too little to bring about change in Syria.

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said, “The situation in Syria is getting increasingly dire. And it appears the Assad administration is dug in pretty hard. So there is a real danger of the warfare prolonging, and while it prolongs having the Syrian state devolve into potentially ethnically-cleansed enclaves, and a huge vacuum left for jihadis and extremists to launch attacks from.”

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte urged continued pressure on Russia and Iran to stop the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Democratic Senator Chris Coons said the United States can and must do more to address a worsening humanitarian crisis in and around Syria.

The senators said they have signed a letter to President Obama detailing their findings, concerns, and recommendations.

The Obama administration has been wary of direct U.S. military involvement in Syria, but insisted President Assad’s rule will end. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spoke earlier in the day.

“We need to all work together as an international community to hasten the day when this bloodshed ends and when we are turning the page and welcoming a transitional governing structure that can give Syria a better and different future," said Nuland.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon struck a somber note on Syria, describing the situation as a "calamity."