FLOOR REMARKS BY SENATOR JOHN McCAIN ON SYRIA
May 9, 2013
“Mr. President, I rise to speak about the situation in Syria.
“The strategic and humanitarian costs of this conflict continue to be devastating, not just for the people of Syria but for vital American interests. As today’s Washington Post editorial makes clear, nearly all of the terrible consequences that those opposed to intervention predicted would happen if we intervened in Syria have happened because we have not.
“First, there is mounting evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime. As many of my colleagues have noted – including Senator Feinstein, the chairman of our Intelligence Committee – President Obama’s red line on Syria has been crossed. But instead of acting, the Obama Administration has called for additional evidence to be collected by U.N. investigators, who have not yet set foot in Syria and probably never will. In the absence of more robust action, I fear, it will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale.
“Moreover, as I have said before, by drawing a "red line" on chemical weapons, the President actually gave the Assad regime a green light to use every other weapon in his arsenal with impunity. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed indiscriminately with snipers, artillery, helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and even ballistic missiles. Indeed, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, more than 4,300 civilians have been killed by Assad’s airstrikes alone since July 2012.
“At the same time, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are building a network of militias inside Syria, and the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra Front has gained unprecedented strength on the ground. According to estimates that have been published in the media, some believe there were no more than a few hundred al Nusra fighters in Syria last year – but today, it is widely believed that there could be thousands of extremist fighters inside Syria. They are gaining strength by the day because they are the best, most experienced fighters. They are well-funded and are providing humanitarian assistance in the parts of Syria where people need it the most.
“At the same time, this conflict is having increasingly devastating consequences to the security and stability of our allies and partners in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has characterized the situation in Syria as an ‘existential threat’ for Lebanon, where the government estimates that one million Syrians have entered the country, which has a population of just over 4 million. Similarly, over the past two years more than 500,000 Syrians have flooded into Jordan, a country of just six million people. Consider for a moment that in proportional terms, this would be equivalent to 26 million refugees – or the entire population of Texas – suddenly crossing our own borders.
“In short, Syria is becoming a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by thousands of al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, with possibly tons of chemical weapons, and poised to ignite a wider sectarian conflict that could profoundly destabilize the region.
“Yesterday brought news that the Administration plans to organize, together with Russia, an international peace conference later this year to seek a negotiated settlement to the war in Syria. All of us are in favor of such a political resolution to this conflict. No one wants to see this conflict turn into a fight to the death and total victory for one side over the other. We all want to work towards a political settlement that forms a new governing structure in Syria reflective of the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.
“But let’s be realistic. One of the lessons of the past two years is that such a negotiated settlement will not be possible in Syria until the balance of power shifts more decisively against Assad and those around him. Until Assad, as well as his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian backers no longer believe they are winning, what incentive do they have to come to the table and make a deal? This is what two well-meaning United Nations senior envoys have already learned.
“Yes, Syrian opposition forces are gaining strength and territory on the ground. But Assad still has air power, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and a host of other advanced weaponry. And he is using all of it. Furthermore, today’s news reports that Russia has agreed to sell an advanced air defense system to the Assad regime should lead us once again to ask whether the path to peace in Syria really runs through Moscow.
“I know Americans are war-weary and eager to focus on our domestic and economic problems, not foreign affairs. I also know the situation in Syria is complex and there are no ideal options. But the basic choice we face is not complicated: Do the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action? I believe they do.
“No one should think that the United States has to act alone, put boots on the ground, or destroy every Syrian air defense system to make a difference for the better in Syria. We have more limited options at our disposal – including limited military options – that can make a positive impact on this crisis.
“We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces – a course of action that was recommended last year by President Obama’s entire national security team. I am encouraged that Senator Menendez, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced legislation this week on this very issue – and that he is speaking out about the need for more robust action in Syria, including in addressing Assad’s air power.
“As several key leaders in our own military have pointed out in testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee over the past several months – from General James Mattis to Admiral James Stavridis – we have the capacity to significantly weaken both the Assad regime's airpower and its increasing use of ballistic missiles, which pose significant risks as delivery vehicles for chemical weapons.
“To address this threat, we could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses. Similar weapons could be used to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make Assad’s forces think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria from Assad's aerial bombing and missile attacks.
“Would any of these options immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But they could save innocent lives in Syria. They could give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed in marginalizing radical actors and eventually provide security and responsible governance in Syria after Assad falls. However, the longer we wait, the worse the situation gets, and the tougher it will be to confront, as we will inevitably be forced to do sooner or later.
“I am encouraged that a consensus is emerging and many of our colleagues – Democrats and Republicans alike – share this view. I note, Mr. President, the leadership of Senator Levin, the chairman of our Armed Services Committee who I joined in writing a letter to President Obama urging him to take more active steps on Syria. I also note the important voice Senator Bob Casey has leant to this debate and ask that his op-ed printed last week in the Huffington Post, ‘Time to Act in Syria,’ – which calls for consideration of more options, including, cruise missile strikes to neutralize the Syrian Air Force – be included in the record.
“Mr. President, let me conclude with one final thought: for America, our interests are our values and our values are our interests. The moral dimension cannot be lost from our foreign policy. If ever a case should remind us of this, it is Syria.
“Leon Wieseltier captured this point powerfully in The New Republic this week:
‘Seventy thousand people have died in the Syrian war, most of them at the hands of their ruler. Since this number has appeared in the papers for many months, the actual number must be much higher. The slaughter is unceasing. But the debate about American intervention is increasingly conducted in “realist” terms: the threat to American interests posed by jihadism in Syria, the intrigues of Iran and Hezbollah, the rattling of Israel, the ruination of Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq. Those are all good reasons for the President of the United States to act like the President of the United States. But wouldn’t the prevention of ethnic cleansing and genocidal war be reason enough? Is the death of scores and even hundreds of thousands, and the displacement of millions, less significant for American policy, and less quickening? The moral dimension must be restored to our deliberations, the moral sting, or else Obama, for all his talk about conscience, will have presided over a terrible mutilation of American discourse: the severance of conscience from action.’
“Nearly two decades ago, I worked with both Democratic and Republican colleagues in Congress to support President Clinton as he led America to do the right thing in stopping mass atrocities in Bosnia. The question for another President today, and for all Americans, is whether we will again answer the desperate pleas for rescue that are made uniquely to us, as the United States of America.
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|