McCain: Without American action, Assad could remain in power

McCain: Without American action, Assad could remain in power

Arizona and New Jersey senators voice bipartisan support for military backing for Syrian rebels, skeptical of diplomacy’s efficacy

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

US Republican Senator John McCain speaking in Jerusalem in February 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
US Republican Senator John McCain speaking in Jerusalem in February 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

DEAD SEA, Jordan — Syrian President Bashar Assad will likely remain in power unless decisive American action is taken to remove him, US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said Saturday.

Speaking to the press at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the Jordanian Dead Sea, the former presidential candidate voiced skepticism ahead of a planned international conference on the Syrian civil war next month, popularly referred to as Geneva 2.

“Two years ago people believed Assad’s fall was just a matter of time, but that is no longer the case,” McCain said, and made reference to recent Russian and Iranian arms shipments to the Syrian military.

McCain advocated a series of alternatives to the diplomatic track in Geneva, including arming Syrian opposition rebels, imposing a no-fly zone over Syria similar to the one imposed by NATO over Libya, and the placement of Patriot missiles to intercept fighter jets used by the Assad regime to bombard civilians. The Arizona senator also proposed “cratering” Syrian military airstrips, thereby grounding Assad’s air force.

“In the Syrian context, eliminating the regime’s air capabilities is crucial,” McCain said, adding that Israel’s strikes against military targets near Damascus “with impunity” proved that military intervention is a viable option.

On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey and the US were devising a ‘Plan B’ if talks in Geneva fail, but would not elaborate on the specifics of that plan.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Syria agreed “in principle” to partake in the Geneva meeting in June, where talks will focus on a transitional government and an open-ended ceasefire.

But McCain said he found it difficult to envision Assad peacefully relinquishing power so long as the Syrian president remains confident he’ll receive military and political backing from Moscow.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, joined McCain in a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on the sidelines of the conference to discuss the Syrian crisis. They did not divulge the contents of the meeting.

Menendez said that although he was still undecided about the feasibility of an American-enforced no-fly zone, he considered arming the Syrian rebels a sound alternative to diplomacy.

There is bipartisan agreement in the US Senate that Washington mustn’t put boots on the ground in Syria, Menendez said. He expressed confidence, however, that the US government would be able to differentiate between Jihadists and Free Syrian Army rebels who’d receive American arms.

The Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 on Tuesday in favor of the The Syria Transition Support Act, offering “limited lethal and non-lethal assistance and training to vetted Syrian groups.”

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced in the two years since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.

AP contributed to this report  

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