WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday knocked the Obama administration for being too passive in its response to Syrian violence and called for U.S.-led airstrikes on President Bashar al-Assad's military forces.
"The time has come for a new policy," McCain said during remarks on the Senate floor. "The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the goal of airstrikes should be to create safe havens in the country for opposition forces to plan their own political and military attacks against Assad. The benefit of the United States leading the military effort, he said, is that it would allow the U.S. to better empower Syrian groups that support U.S. interests to move toward a democratic transition.
"If we stand on the sidelines, others will try to pick winners, and this will not always be to our liking or in our interest," he said.
McCain is the first U.S. senator to publicly call for a military attack on Assad's regime. During his floor remarks, he said more than 7,500 lives have been lost in Syria amid the uprising and that the United Nations has declared Syrian security forces guilty of crimes against humanity.
For weeks, McCain has been ratcheting up calls for a U.S. military intervention in Syria. He said in early February that the U.S. should begin thinking of arming the opposition, though he also warned of the risks of doing so. By mid-February, he said the U.S. should consider sending diplomatic and military resources to the groups. The State Department has resisted doing so, though it has been planning ways to get humanitarian aid to the rebels.
During his Senate remarks, McCain noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued just last week that the U.S. continues to oppose providing military assistance because the identities of the rebels are unclear and U.S. aid could end up aiding terrorist groups like al Qaeda or Hamas. But in the meantime, McCain said, the U.S. has made "not much" of an effort to meet and engage directly with the rebels.
He cited other concerns by the administration that providing military assistance could enable a "bloody and indiscriminate" sectarian civil war. "This is a serious and legitimate concern, and it is only growing worse the longer the conflict goes on," McCain said, which means the U.S. needs to step in to end the fighting sooner than later. “Furthermore, the risks of sectarian conflict will exist in Syria whether we get more involved or not."
McCain said he knows there are plenty of reasons not to get involved in the Syrian conflict, the least of which being war fatigue among Americans who would rather focus on domestic problems than another costly overseas military operation. But the bottom line, he said, is that the Syrian people are being massacred by Assad in their fight for peace and democracy.
"These people are our allies. They want many of the same things we do," McCain said. "The Syrian people deserve to succeed, and shame on us if we fail to help them.”