Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) Tuesday night sharply criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syrian conflict and urged him to adopt a strategy that would shift the momentum on the battlefield and lead to a negotiated political transition in the civil war-torn country.
McCain said at the Council on Foreign Relations that he was skeptical of the latest U.S.-Russian plan that requires Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish all of his chemical weapons by mid-2014 for destruction. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry pursued the plan after facing stiff opposition in Congress to authorization of the president’s initial proposal of limited military strikes.
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McCain said securing all of Assad’s chemical weapons would be problematic, citing a report by the Wall Street Journal that Unit 450—an elite unit of officers fiercely loyal to Assad—has dispersed the Syrian regime’s arsenal of about 1,000 metric tons of chemical and biological agents to as many as 50 locations across the country.
Similar United Nations plans have come up short in the past, such as the revelation in 2011 that former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi hid hundreds of battle-ready warheads in a hillside bunker despite allowing inspectors to oversee the destruction of his mustard gas supply in 2003.
Although Obama said he reserves the right to strike the Syrian regime if they do not hand over the weapons, McCain said that threat "rings hollow" because the U.N. plan does not enforce Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. Chapter 7 provides a trigger for military strikes if Assad fails to comply with the deal.
"That’s a major climb-down from an administration that was ready to launch airstrikes three weeks ago, and it was an even worse blow for those staunch allies that were willing to stand with us," McCain said.
"It was not a product of this administration’s strength but its weakness. Russia sensed this weakness and led this administration in my view down a diplomatic blind alley."
The U.N. plan also does not address the situation on the ground in Syria, where the Syrian army has been bolstered by Russian arms and thousands of fighters from Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, McCain said. The civil war threatens to engulf the region in sectarian conflict as millions of refugees flee to neighboring countries, such as Jordan, and thousands of Sunni jihadists pour in to establish safe havens, he added.
"What happens if Bashar al-Assad stays in power? What’s the message in Syria?" McCain asked.
McCain said he favors providing more robust arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the most prominent rebel group opposing Assad, to counter Iran’s growing role in the conflict and maintain U.S. influence in the event Assad falls.
However, a member of the audience asked McCain how the United States could ensure those weapons did not fall into the wrong hands with some reports that about half of the 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria are jihadists.
It would have been easier to arm the rebels two years ago—before the jihadists arrived, McCain said. However, Syria presents "no good options," only "some more preferable than others." He said he thinks close to 70 percent of the rebels belong to the FSA.
"Two years ago I would have accelerated the supplies to the Free Syrian Army, and it would have been over," he said. "Bashar al-Assad and his army were on the run and the momentum was with the rebels until about a year ago."
"There’s a grave danger of Syria dissolving into different pieces—that is something where it’s going to require real significant involvement on our part in assisting the Free Syrian Army but also real international pressure."
Arming the FSA could shift the momentum back to the rebels and bring Assad to the negotiating table, McCain said. A more sustained arms program could also grant the United States leverage in ensuring that the FSA honors their commitments to transfer chemical weapons to inspectors and prevent the slaughter of Christians and Alawites, Assad’s sect of Shiite Muslims.
Inaction in Syria could not only embolden Iran but cause the Syrian people to turn their back on the United States, he said. The Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people so far.
"We are in danger of creating a million young people who will grow up hating America," he said.
"We ought to think about the implications of failing to stop this dictator who has butchered thousands of his people."