Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) urged President Barack Obama Thursday to exercise a leadership role in the Middle East as the Syrian civil war threatens to engulf the entire region in a sectarian conflict.
McCain spoke about his recent trips to Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria in a speech at the Brookings Institution. He met with the Supreme Military Council and more than a dozen Free Syrian Army officials who he said pleaded for assistance in the face of mounting victories by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Sunni Islamic radicals affiliated with groups such as al Qaeda have taken a leading role in the Syrian opposition to Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, and are more experienced, well-armed, and well-funded than the rebels, he said.
"The entire Middle East is up for grabs, and our enemies are fully committed to winning," McCain said. "The only power that is not fully committed in this region is us."
McCain recommended using anti-aircraft weapons and providing a government safe zone protected by Patriot missiles for the Syrian opposition to meet, coordinate strategy, and distribute arms. There are also reasonable grounds to think Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons more than once, he said, an action that Obama has said would cross a "red line."
"The longer we wait to take action in this conflict, the more action we will have to take," he said.
The Syrian regime, aided by the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah from Lebanon, seized the strategic town of al-Qusayr Wednesday, further weakening the rebels’ position.
The fall of al-Qusayr, an important conduit of supplies for rebel troops on Syria’s southern border with Lebanon, will likely lead fewer members of the regime to defect to the rebels, said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, at a panel Thursday on the Syrian conflict at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If the equilibrium started to tip, those still in the [Syrian] army, unsure of their allegiance, will stop thinking about defecting anytime soon," he said.
Members of Assad’s regime that have defected to the Free Syrian Army have exhibited a lack of genuine political leadership, he said, allowing radical Islamic groups to gain support by providing public services to Syrians.
"The Syrian opposition has failed to establish strategies on the political level and that has led to ineffective military command," he said.
"This is why various Islamist groups have been able to fill a vacuum in terms of fulfilling civil services and also military strategy."
The Syrian conflict itself threatens to destabilize the region for years to come despite the cessation of hostilities in the Levant since the war between Hezbollah and Israel ended in 2006, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Iran and Hezbollah, initially kept at arms length in the civil war, decided to intervene in the last year after Assad struggled to defeat the rebels, he said.
Their involvement could also draw Israel into the conflict amid concerns that fighting between Islamic radicals and the regime could spillover into its borders. Rebels captured part of the disputed territory in the Golan Heights near Israel’s northern border Thursday after intense clashes with the regime, according to reports.
"The Israeli-Hezbollah-Syria stability might be at the breaking point," Salem said.
McCain said arming the Free Syrian Army, the only group not receiving heavy weaponry, would be the only way to turn the tide against Assad and send a signal to other actors such as Iran and Russia that are seeking to exert influence in the region. Ensuring Iran suffers a strategic mistake by getting involved in Syria would also stymie their efforts to develop nuclear weapons, he said.
The United States has agreed to meet with Russia about the conflict at a Geneva conference next month, negotiations that are doomed to fail if the status quo does not change, McCain said.
"Does anybody think Bashar Assad is going to send people to Geneva to negotiate him leaving if he’s winning?" he said.
If Assad falls, the United States must provide a "heavy footprint of assistance" to the Syrians to prevent a humanitarian disaster and retaliation by the rebels against former members of Assad’s regime.
"That does not mean boots on the ground," he said.
The conflict has claimed more than 80,000 lives and forced millions of refugees into the neighboring countries McCain visited. Syrian refugees now comprise 10 percent of Jordan’s population, another reason for the U.S. to lead, he said.
"Our interests are our values and our values are our interests," he said.
"Our values are to stop a massacre and our interests are to stop a situation where a whole region erupts into warfare."