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Senator John McCain called for the U.S. to lead an international effort to protect “key population centers” in Syria through airstrikes on Syrian government forces and air defenses.
“The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities” against Syrian President Bashar al- Assad, McCain, an Arizona Republican, said today in remarks on the Senate floor.
McCain is at odds with the Obama administration, which has emphasized diplomatic pressure on Assad and opposed sending arms or direct military intervention in the conflict to avoid further escalating the bloodshed. Several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have said they favor providing arms to support the Syrian opposition.
Syrian opposition forces, such as the Free Syrian Army, are lightly armed and little match for Syrian tanks, as was shown in the regime’s successful assault on Homs. Opposition forces fought Syrian soldiers in at least three cities today.
McCain said the U.S. has a national security interest in seeing the Assad regime -- Iran’s Arab ally -- fall. He said establishing civilian “safe havens” would protect opposition population centers from Assad’s forces.
“These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies,” said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces,” he said.
Saudi Arabia said Gulf Cooperation Council members are prepared to participate in any joint effort to help Syrians protect themselves from the Assad government, the Saudi Press Agency reported March 2.
In addition to striking tanks and other heavy weapons threatening civilians, McCain said aircraft would need to target Syrian air defenses “in at least part of the country.”
McCain said the city of Homs “is lost for now” while intervention can protect other cities from similar attacks by Syrian forces.
“Despite a year’s worth of diplomacy backed by sanctions, Assad and his top lieutenants show no signs of giving up and taking the path into foreign exile,” McCain said. “To the contrary, they appear to accelerating their fight to the finish. And they are doing so with the shameless support of foreign governments, especially in Russia, China, and Iran.”
The U.S. has a “clear national security interest” in seeing that Assad fails and that there is new leadership in Syria, he said.
“The end of the Assad regime would sever Hezbollah’s lifeline to Iran, eliminate a long-standing threat to Israel, bolster Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, and inflict a strategic defeat on the Iranian regime,” he said. “It would be a geopolitical success of the first order. More than all of the compelling moral and humanitarian reasons, this is why Assad cannot be allowed to succeed and remain in power.”
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