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Remarks by Senator John McCain on Syria at the American Enterprise Institute

Statement

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will deliver the following remarks on Syria at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C.:
"Thank you, Michael [Rubin], for that kind introduction.

"It is a pleasure to be back at AEI. This institute has been leading our debates on public policy, especially on foreign and defense policy, for decades, and you continue that leadership today. It is great to be back among so many friends.

"I usually try to begin my speeches on a lighter note. But when it comes to the situation in Syria, I could not summon a joke or a laugh if I tried. It is too horrifying, too heartbreaking, too exasperating.

"For 15 months now, the Syrian people have faced an onslaught of violence from Bashar al-Assad and his forces. It is now estimated that as many as 12,000 lives have been lost. Some suspect the figure is even higher. And there is no end in sight. To the contrary, Assad appears to be accelerating his fight to the finish.

"Amid all of this violence, it is important to recognize that the clear trend is toward escalation, both in the nature and the quantity of the killing. Assad has gone from using infantry and snipers, to tanks and artillery, to turning loose special units and plain-clothed militias to massacre men, women, and children, as happened last month in the town of Houla. We are now seeing a rapid increase in Assad's use of helicopter gunships. Whereas his forces once sought to clear and hold ground, they now appear to be under orders just to kill anyone and everyone they deem a threat. There is every reason to believe that Assad will continue to escalate the violence -- more massacres, more use of helicopters, and perhaps worse weapons after that.

"Meanwhile, Assad and his forces continue to be rearmed by Russia and Iran. There are reports of Iranian operatives on the ground in Syria to help Assad with the killing, while Russia apparently continues to ship heavy weapons -- including, as Secretary Clinton has stated, the very helicopter gunships that Assad is currently using to strafe and bomb civilians. Whether these are new helicopters or old ones that Assad sent to Russia to be refurbished and have the blood washed off of them is a distinction without a difference. There are now reports that Russia has dispatched two ships and a unit of Russian marines to reinforce their naval base at Tartus -- and that they are also delivering additional anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to help defend the Assad regime. Clearly, this is not a fair fight.

"Amid all of the violence in Syria, we cannot go numb to the human tragedy there. In April, thanks to the special efforts of the Turkish government, Senator Joe Lieberman and I visited a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey. I have seen my share of suffering and death, but the stories that those Syrians told still haunt me -- men who had lost all of their children, women and girls who had been gang raped, children who had been tortured. And none of this, mind you, was the random acts of cruelty that sadly occur in war. Syrian army defectors told us that killing, and rape, and torture was what they were instructed to do as a tactic of terror and intimidation. So if I get a little emotional when I talk about Syria, this is why.

"When it comes to the Administration's policy toward Syria, to say they are "leading from behind' is too generous. That suggests they are leading. They are just behind. In its desperation, the Administration now appears to be placing its hopes in the Russian government to push Assad from power in a Yemen-like transition. This is the same Russian government that continues to provide heavy weapons and moral support to Assad, that refuses to authorize U.N. sanctions on the regime, and that even blamed Assad's recent slaughter of civilians in Houla on the opposition and foreign powers. The more basic problem with this approach is that the Administration has already tried it, and Moscow rejected it and shut down the U.N. Security Council. What has changed to make things different now?

"What the President does not seem to realize is what President Bill Clinton came to understand in Bosnia -- that a diplomatic resolution in conflicts like these is not possible until the military balance of power changes on the ground. As long as a murderous dictator, be it Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, believes he is winning on the battlefield, he has no incentive to stop fighting and negotiate. The same is true for the regime's foreign supporters. For whatever the reasons, and despite destroying Russia's reputation in the Arab world, the Russian government has stuck with Assad for 15 months. What makes us think that President Putin will change course now, when Assad is still the dominant power on the ground?

"We are now approaching a major point of decision. Kofi Annan's plan, which does not even call for Assad to go, has been a failure for months. The head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria has suspended its operations for security reasons. Assad's increasing reliance on helicopter gunships is giving new impetus to calls for a no-fly zone. And Russia is unlikely to ever support a policy of regime change in Syria. The Administration's approach is being overtaken by events.

"Furthermore, the opposition inside Syria is increasingly forcing the hand of the civilized world to intervene on their behalf, because they are growing more effective militarily. This is no thanks to us. Public reports suggest that some of our friends in the Middle East are now arming rebel groups in Syria. This may explain some of the recent reports that opposition forces have been able to destroy some of Assad's tanks and prevent his forces from retaking and holding some key terrain.

"Some will try to interpret these developments as evidence that the United States should maintain a hands-off approach to Syria. This is wrong.

"First, the fact that the opposition in Syria is doing better militarily thanks to external support seems to validate what many of us have been arguing for months -- that opposition forces have enough organization to be supportable, and that our support can help them to further improve their organization and command and control. This is an argument for doing more, not less, to aid rebel fighters in Syria.

"Second, while it is good that some foreign military assistance now seems to be reaching the opposition in Syria, this alone will not be decisive. It will not be sufficient to end the conflict faster. It may even just prolong it. Nearly every Syrian I speak with tells me the same thing: The longer this conflict drags on, the more radicalized it becomes, and the more it turns into a sectarian civil war with an escalating spiral of violence that Syrians alone cannot stop.

"Finally, the Syrian opposition needs to know that the United States stands with them, and that we are willing to take risks to support them when they need it most. Our current inaction only denies us the opportunity to have influence with the forces in Syria who will one day inherit the country. And we are ceding that influence to foreign states that may not always share our interests and our values -- or worse, to extremist groups that are hostile to us. Our lack of involvement in Syria is not preventing the militarization of the conflict, or lessening the risk of sectarian violence, or countering the appeal of extremist groups. All of these events are just happening without us -- and without our ability to influence them.

"In short, the main reason the United States needs to get more involved in Syria is to help the opposition end the conflict sooner, while they can still secure an outcome that is consistent with their goals -- and ours. We should do so not simply for humanitarian reasons, but because it is in our national security interest. In the words of General James Mattis, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, the fall of Assad would be the biggest blow to Iran in 25 years.

"Yes, there are risks to greater involvement in Syria. The opposition is still struggling to get organized. Al-Qaeda and other extremists are working to hijack the revolution. And there are already reports of reprisal killings of Alawites. These risks are real and serious, but the risks of continuing to do nothing are worse.

"If we fail to act, the consequences are clear. Syria will become a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, threatening both our ally Israel and our NATO ally Turkey. With or without Assad, the country will devolve into a full-scale civil war with areas of ungoverned space that Al-Qaeda and its allies will occupy. Violence and radicalism will spill even more into Lebanon and Iraq, fueling sectarian conflicts that are still burning in both countries. Syria will turn into a battlefield between Sunni and Shia extremists, each backed by foreign powers, which will ignite sectarian tensions from North Africa to the Gulf and risk a wider regional conflict. This is the course we are on in Syria, and we must act now to avoid it.

"The U.S. action I envision would not be unilateral. It would be multilateral. We would work closely with Arab and European allies, especially Turkey and our partners in the Gulf. As in Libya, there would be no boots on the ground. And we would only intervene at the request of legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Our goal would be to help the opposition change the military balance of power on the ground, thereby creating conditions for an end to the violence, the departure of Assad and his cronies, and a negotiated transition as soon as possible.

"To achieve this goal, we first need to help the Syrian opposition to establish safe havens inside the country. This is essential for a number of reasons. It is constantly said that the Syrian opposition is disorganized. That may be true at the national and international levels. But it is much less true at the local level. To the contrary, the Revolutionary Councils, Military Councils, and Local Coordination Committees that have emerged in cities across Syria are increasingly sophisticated and effective. I have met some of their members and representatives, and they are among the most impressive figures I have encountered in the Syrian opposition.

"Nonetheless, if the Syrian opposition is to succeed, it needs an effective unifying structure of some kind. It is unlikely that such a structure could be formed in Syria until the opposition has a safe haven -- a place where they can emerge from hiding, gather together in safety, select national political and military leaders, and organize themselves better as an alternative governing structure, not just for the purpose of pushing Assad from power today, but to prepare for the huge challenge of administering and securing the country once Assad is gone. This is what the National Transitional Council was able to do in Benghazi, and it is why, despite major challenges, the transition in Libya is largely succeeding.

"It is less difficult to imagine today, as opposed to several months ago, how safe havens could be established in Syria. Indeed, some analysts suggest that the opposition may already be creating some areas of de facto control in the country -- for example, in parts of Idlib province and areas north of Aleppo along the Turkish border, and in eastern Syria around Deir ez-Zor. It is quite possible that the opposition could soon declare parts of Syria to be liberated, as the Libyan rebels did in Benghazi, and then ask for external support in defending that territory.

"This is exactly what we should be helping the opposition to do. Rather than insisting that we cannot act militarily without a U.N. Security Council resolution, as the Secretary of Defense recently asserted, we should follow President Clinton's example from Kosovo: We should refuse to give Russia and China a veto over our actions, and instead work outside of the Security Council to shape a coalition of willing states with a legitimate mandate to intervene militarily in Syria. Many of our allies are willing to do much more, but only if the United States is with them. As one regional official told the Wall Street Journal last weekend, the Turks in particular are looking for, quote, "the ironclad backing of the U.S. and others.'

"We should provide it to them. We should make U.S. airpower available, along with that of our allies, as part of an international effort to defend safe areas in Syria and to prevent Assad's forces from harassing them, as they will inevitably try to do. Once Assad's forces see that they, their tanks, their artillery, their helicopters, and their other aircraft will pay an awful price if they try to threaten these opposition safe havens, I suspect they will quickly lose their appetite for it.

"Once defended, these safe havens could become platforms for increased deliveries of food and medicine, communications equipment, doctors to treat the wounded, and other non-lethal assistance. They could also serve as staging areas for armed opposition groups to receive battlefield intelligence, body armor, and weapons -- from small arms and ammunition, to anti-tank rockets -- and to train and organize themselves more effectively, perhaps with foreign assistance. The goal would be to expand the reach of these safe havens across more of the country.

"As a final part of this strategy, we must think about the situation in Syria in a broader strategic context. The events unfolding from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq are all part of one connected story. We must be thinking about how we could capitalize on the fall of the Assad regime in Syria to weaken and marginalize Hezbollah… to strengthen Lebanon's sovereignty and independence… to support the reconciliation of sectarian conflicts through politics not violence... to increase the pressure on the Maliki government in Iraq to roll back its authoritarian tendencies and share power more democratically… and to counter Iran's subversive hegemonic ambitions in the region. In all of these efforts, the United States and Turkey share common interests and values, and we need to be working more closely together than ever.

"But most of all, what is needed is American leadership. If there were ever a case that should remind us that our interests are indivisible from our values, it is Syria. A few days after the massacre in Houla, the Washington Post interviewed a young Bosnian man who survived the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995. This is how he looked at the ongoing slaughter in Syria, quote: "It's bizarre how "never again' has come to mean "again and again,'' he said. "It's obvious that we live in a world where Srebrenicas are still possible. What's happening in Syria today is almost identical to what happened in Bosnia two decades ago.'

"He could not be more correct. Syria today is indistinguishable from Bosnia in the 1990s, with one exception: In Bosnia, President Clinton finally summoned the courage to lead the world to intervene and stop the killing. It is worth recalling his words upon ordering military action in Bosnia in 1995: "There are times and places,' President Clinton said, "where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war, and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic, strategic interests. [T]here are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace.'

"Those were the words of a Democratic President who led America to do the right thing in stopping mass atrocities in Bosnia. And I remember working with my Republican colleague, Bob Dole, to support President Clinton in that endeavor. The question for another Democratic President today, and for all of us in positions of responsibility, is whether we will again answer the desperate pleas for rescue that are made uniquely to us, as the United States of America -- and whether we will use our great power, as we have done before at our best, not simply to advance our own interests, but to serve a just cause that is greater than our interests alone."


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