from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

McCain on Syria

September 18, 2013

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Senator John McCain spoke about Syria yesterday here at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. His remarks are the best explanation of the American interests at stake and the best critique of the Obama administration’s handling of this crisis.  Cogent, clear, serious, and humane, they deserve careful reading. Here they are:




Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today delivered the following remarks on Syria at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C.:


“Thank you, Margaret [Warner], for agreeing to moderate tonight’s discussion. And let me thank everyone at the Council on Foreign Relations for their generous invitation to speak with you this evening. It is always a pleasure to be back at CFR.


“Before I take your questions, I would like to say a few words about Syria. And please forgive me for not beginning with some attempt at humor. But whenever I talk about Syria, I find it difficult to summon any levity.


“I wish I could see the recent agreement between Russia and the United States to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons as major breakthrough. Unfortunately, I cannot. I derive no pleasure in saying this. Nor am I seeking to score political points. In fact, I have sought to work with President Obama on Syria at every turn, and to encourage his development of a broader strategy for this growing problem. I have met with him several times recently for exactly that purpose, and I’m grateful for that opportunity. I supported the President’s call to use force against the Assad regime for its massacre of nearly 1,500 Syrians with chemical weapons on August 21. And I worked with my colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pass, on a bipartisan basis, the authority to use force that the President sought.


“I admit to not being an expert on Syria, or chemical weapons. But I do understand power, and the use of power. I also understand war, and the conduct of war. And the one benefit of my advanced age is the perspective it offers. This is the basis for my deep concern with the Administration’s mishandling of the conflict in Syria.


“Let’s recall that this Russian initiative first arose as both houses of Congress appeared ready to reject the President’s proposed military strikes in Syria, which called into question how credible that threat of force really was. So it is hard to maintain that the Administration entered into this agreement from a position of strength. No one trusts Assad’s sincerity. And there is little reason to have more faith in Russia, especially when President Putin himself still insists that the Syrian opposition was responsible for the August 21 attack. This is why enforcement is so critical. Unfortunately, the Administration’s claim that the threat of force remains on the table rings somewhat hollow in light of the events of the past few weeks.


“What’s more, the Administration seems to have given up on codifying the terms of this agreement immediately in a U.N. Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII – let alone one that would explicitly threaten the use of force for Assad’s non-compliance. Russia has said it won’t agree to either of those things. Instead, Russia may only be willing to authorize a less severe penalty in a second resolution, and only after Assad violates the terms of the agreement. That is a major climb down for an Administration that was ready to launch airstrikes three weeks ago. And it is an even worse blow to those stalwart U.S. allies who were prepared to act with us.


“Under these circumstances, what leverage do we have to force Assad’s compliance when he starts to lie, and cheat, and delay, using every trick in Saddam Hussein’s playbook? Not much, it appears. And the leverage we do have no longer appears credible. To insist otherwise misses the basic reality of this agreement: It was not a product of the Administration’s strength, but of its weakness – of its inability or unwillingness to take the military action it deemed necessary against Assad. Russia sensed this weakness and led the Administration into a diplomatic blind alley.


“The fact is, the Assad regime will likely avoid any meaningful punishment for its use – not just possession, but use – of weapons of mass destruction. This is why many of us are concerned that both our friends and enemies will see this agreement as an act of provocative weakness – a blow to America’s credibility that will lead others to question whether we are willing and able to enforce our own stated commitments, even after the gravest transgressions.  I cannot imagine a worse message to send to the rulers of Iran, or the young leader in North Korea, or every other bad actor that is looking for an excuse to test the limits of American resolve.


“There is reason to be troubled by the terms of this agreement, but the bigger problem is what it leaves out. It says nothing about the underlying conflict in Syria, and will do nothing to resolve it. That is the greater threat to America’s national security interests – not chemical weapons per se, but the conflict itself. It is this conflict that has claimed nearly 110,000 lives and counting, driven millions from their homes, destabilized some of our closest friends and allies in the process, emboldened Iran and its proxies, transformed large parts of Syria into safe havens for thousands of extremists, many affiliated with Al-Qaeda; and has now become a regional sectarian conflict that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East.


“That is the larger problem with the Russian chemical weapons initiative: It will in no way help to bring the conflict in Syria to the negotiated end that we seek. It will not stop Assad and his forces from fighting. It will not stop Iran from fighting. It will not stop Hezbollah troops, who have invaded Syria by the thousands, from fighting. And it will not stop Russia from continuing to send weapons and other military assistance to the Assad regime. In fact, the more destructive Assad is in his war against the Syrian people, the more he creates conditions of insecurity in Syria that make the removal of his chemical weapons impossible. In short, Assad could render this agreement ineffective without ever violating the letter of it.


“Not surprisingly, Assad and his forces are now increasing their attacks on opposition forces and civilian populations using every tool in their arsenal short of chemical weapons. Just yesterday we read in the Washington Post that Assad’s fighter jets are back on the attack for the first time in weeks, and his artillery is shelling at double the normal rate the very same Damascus neighborhood that was gassed on August 21. Indeed, the Post reports that more than 1,000 people were killed in Syria last week while the chemical weapons agreement was negotiated. Meanwhile, we also read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are stepping up their training of Shiite recruits from across the region to go to Syria and fight for Assad. This, too, should surprise no one.


“We cannot afford to look at Syria as a chemical weapons arsenal attached to a country. As awful as chemical weapons are, and as much as we all want them taken away from Assad, they are just one symptom of the deteriorating conflict in Syria. We need a strategy to end this war as soon as possible, because the longer it goes the worse it gets. That strategy must degrade the military capabilities of the Assad regime, upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, shift the momentum on the battlefield, and thereby create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict and the removal from power of Assad and his top henchmen.


“Unfortunately, there are real tensions between this strategy and the chemical weapons initiative that we have now undertaken. That is why Russia proposed it in the first place. Is Assad a war criminal who we seek to remove from power by supporting, and arming, and training his opponents? Or is Assad our negotiating partner for the next nine months? It is unclear. And that is why our own partners on the ground in Syria are so dispirited. Here is what General Idriss, the commander of Free Syrian Army, said about the recent chemical weapons initiative: ‘We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.’


“This comes on top of the Administration’s failure, for the better part of three years, to provide meaningful lethal assistance to moderate opposition forces. According to the Washington Post, the first U.S. weapons only reached the opposition earlier this month, and they reportedly only reached a very small number of people. It is long past time to launch a significant train and equip program for moderate Syrian forces, and the Defense Department is best suited to lead this expanded mission.


“Our recent debates on Syria have led some to conclude that Americans have turned isolationist, and that is why the Administration has not done more in Syria. To the contrary, the reluctance of Americans to do more is related, in large part, to the Administration’s unwillingness, or inability, to formulate a strategy on Syria and communicate it effectively. Instead, what Americans constantly hear from the Administration is how awful the conflict in Syria is, and how eager they are not to be involved in it, as the President said again in his speech to the nation last week.


“But look where we are now: Everything the Administration has said would happen if we got more involved in Syria has now happened because we have not gotten more involved. And nearly every option that the Administration once criticized as reckless and dangerous, from arming the opposition to targeted airstrikes, has now become U.S. policy. Is it any wonder that the American people, and members of Congress, are deeply confused and reluctant to be involved in Syria?


“No one wants to be involved in Syria. But the reality is, we are involved. We are more involved today than one year ago. We were more involved one year ago than two years ago. We were more involved two years ago than three years ago. And we will almost certainly be more involved next year than we are now – only then, the conflict will be worse, and we will have worse and fewer options to address it. But eventually we will have to address it, not because we want to, but because our interests, and the security of our friends and allies, require it. To insist otherwise is not some greater form of realism, but rather a profound denial of reality.


“It is this refusal to deal with the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be, that has allowed a series of peaceful demonstrations against a brutal dictator three years ago to grow into a regional sectarian conflict that is overwhelming Jordan, driving violence in Iraq to levels not seen since the worst days of 2008, fueling the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, and is even leading some of our Asian allies to question U.S. policy toward weapons of mass destruction in North Korea.


“Americans need to be told clearly what’s at stake in Syria. And with all due respect to the Administration, it is far more than an international norm about chemical weapons, which sounds like political science. Americans need to care about the conflict in Syria because it is becoming a failed state in the heart of the Middle East; because it is a growth hormone for Al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies; because it is now a regional catastrophe that threatens the very existence of some of our closest friends and allies, who are indispensable to the safety of every American; and because it is the central front of the Iranian regime’s battle to dominate the Middle East. These are the national security interests that we have at stake in Syria. It’s one thing for Americans to hear this from an old member of Congress like me. It’s quite another for them to hear it from their president.


“The American people are never eager to engage in foreign policy, let alone involve themselves in foreign conflicts. And that is the healthy attitude of a democratic people. But there are events and threats in the world that demand our attention, and from which we cannot isolate ourselves. And it is in those times that the American people rely on our elected leaders, most of all our president, to lead them – to explain to them where our interests and values are at greatest risk, why we cannot afford to remain disengaged, why further delay will only allow present dangers to turn into more dire future threats, and what we as a nation are called on to do.


“No president campaigns to get America involved in foreign conflicts. And no president prefers to prioritize his time in this way. But what sets our greatest presidents apart from all the rest is that they recognized this duty when it called to them, and they took it up. This kind of leadership we need now more than ever.”
















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