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Department of Defense, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. McCAIN. Madam President, I thank the chairwoman, Senator Mikulski, for allowing me to speak as if in morning business.


On March 15, 2011, thousands of Syrian men, women, and children in the city of Deraa gathered together in a public square that is known today as Dignity Square. They came together to peacefully protest against the Syrian regime's decision to arrest and torture a group of 15 teenagers whose crime had been exercising their universally recognized rights to free speech. Their crime was speaking truth to those in power in Syria. They sketched on the wall of their school a statement that remains true in Syria today: ``The people want the regime to fall.''

Since these peaceful calls for change were first heard in Syria 2 years ago, more than 70,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime. More than 1 million refugees have fled their country at a rate of 8,000 people each day as of last month, and 2.5 million people have been displaced within their country. Only the genocide in Rwanda and the first Iraq war have driven more people to refugee status over a similar period of time.

These facts and figures are startling. Behind each statistic is a profound human tragedy to which we cannot grow numb as the conflict in Syria presses on into a third year. I certainly cannot.

Last April Senator Joe Lieberman and I visited a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey, and earlier this year I traveled together with Senators Whitehouse, Ayotte, Blumenthal, and Coons to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I have seen my share of suffering and death, but the horror I saw in those camps and the stories I heard still haunt me today. There were men who had lost all their children, women and girls who had been gang-raped, children who had been tortured, and none of these were the random acts of cruelty that sadly occur in war. Syrian Army defectors told us that killing, raping, 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, that is why.

The cost--both strategic and humanitarian--of this conflict has been and will continue to be devastating. Earlier this week UNICEF released a report detailing the impact of Syria's 2-year conflict on the children of Syria. The report states:

In Syria, children have been exposed to grave human rights violations, including killing and maiming, sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detention, recruitment and use by armed forces and groups, and exposure to explosive remnants of war. ..... As millions of children inside Syria and across the region witness their past and their future disappear amidst the rubble and destruction of this prolonged conflict, the risk of them becoming a lost generation grows every day.

The conflict in Syria is breeding a lost generation--a whole new generation of extremists. Earlier this year I met a Syrian teacher in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan who told me that the generation of young Syrians growing up in these camps and inside Syria will take revenge on those who did nothing to help them in their hour of greatest need. We should be ashamed of our collective failure to come to the aid of the Syrian people. But more than that, we should be deeply concerned. As much as I want to disagree with that Syrian teacher, I am haunted by the belief that she is exactly right.

As the conflict of Syria enters its third year, we cannot lose sight of the clear trend toward escalation both in the nature and quality of the killing. In recent months the use of SCUD missiles against civilians fits into a pattern of forced escalation by the Assad regime over the past year.

In January 2012 the regime began to use artillery as Syrian opposition forces became more capable against regime ground forces. In June 2012 Assad escalated his use of air power because the rebels were gaining control of the countryside. Today the regime is intensifying its air campaign by firing SCUD missiles at civilian populations, which is taking a deadly toll, particularly in the north where thousands of civilians have been killed over the past several weeks.

The regime's escalation to Scud missiles--which can be used as delivery vehicles for chemical weapons--should be alarming to us all. According to a recent report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Scud missiles can deliver a 1,000-pound, high-explosive warhead or a chemical agent and, as the report states:

The rebels have no means of knowing when the missiles have been fired, where they are going, or what kinds of warheads are on board. In fact, even with good intelligence collection, there is no reliable way to know which Scuds have been uploaded with chemical warheads.

Let there be no doubt that the threat of chemical weapons is real. I note this morning's headline from the Associated Press: ``Israel's Military Intelligence Chief says Syria's Assad readying to use chemical weapons.''

I ask unanimous consent that this article from the Washington Post be printed in the Record.


Mr. McCAIN. This is a dangerous and unfair fight, and the costs to the United States are significant. Russia and Iran are Assad's lifelines in this brutal fight. Iran continues to use Iraqi airspace to fly fighters and large quantities of weapons to Syria to help Assad with the killing. As many as 50,000 Syrians, militiamen, in Syria are being supported by Tehran and Hezbollah, according to a Washington Post report. Meanwhile, Russia continues to ship heavy weapons to Assad--including, as senior Obama administration officials have stated, the very helicopter gunships the regime is currently using to bomb and shatter civilians.

As the United States and the international community stand idle, 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 continue to devolve into a full-scale civil war that is increasingly sectarian, repressive, and unstable. In the meantime, more and more ungoverned space will come under the control of al-Qaida and its allies. 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 America to the gulf and risk a wider regional conflict. This is the course we are on in Syria, and in the absence of international action, the situation will only get worse.

Although Secretary Kerry and other administration officials have said our goal in Syria is to ``change Assad's calculus'' and make room for a negotiated transition, the truth is, in the absence of a shift in the balance of military power on the ground, that is a hopeless goal. What the administration does not seem to realize is what President Bill Clinton came to understand in Bosnia--that a diplomatic resolution in conflict such as this 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.

Our European powers--led by the French and British--seem to understand this clearly, which is why they are urgently working to persuade their allies to lift an embargo to supply arms to the Syrian opposition. They understand that only a change in military power will bring this conflict to an end.

The same is true for the regime's foreign supporters. Despite destroying Russia's reputation in the Arab world, the Russian Government has stuck with Assad for nearly 2 years now. What makes us think President Putin is about to change course now, when Assad is still a dominant power on the ground?

The Syrian opposition needs our help to change the balance of power on the ground. I have had the honor of meeting one of the key leaders of the Syrian opposition led by a man named Sheikh al-Khatib, the President of the Syrian National Coalition. Sheikh al-Khatib and the national coalition are doing everything the international community asks of them. They have worked to bring together credible moderate members of the Syrian opposition. They are building institutions, both civilian and military.

While the United States and our partners deserve credit in helping and pushing them to do so, when the opposition coalition asks responsible nations for support--when they ask us to help them in coordinating the distribution of aid, governing the liberated areas, and ultimately forming a transitional government--when they have asked us for this assistance, what have we done for them? Next to nothing.

Sheikh al-Khatib and the other moderate leaders of the Syrian opposition are struggling desperately to be relevant to their fellow citizens who are fighting and dying every day inside the country. I believe most Syrians do not support al-Qaida. But many of us in the West are still mired in our own internal debates about whether to provide nonlethal assistance or whether to continue to provide assistance through international NGOs--many of which, I would add, still function with the permission of the Assad regime and deliver most of their aid in Damascus--the fight in Syria is being won by extremists.

Al-Qaida fighters are showing up in greater numbers in the liberated areas of Syria with capable fighters and food and medicine and other aid. Is it any wonder, then, that extremists are gaining ground in Syria?

It is this simple: What is left of the moderate Syrian opposition is in a race against time to survive the radicalization of this conflict and, right now, the world is failing them. The longer we fail them, the worse the outcome will be for us all.

The time to act is long overdue, but it is not too late. I know many wish to avoid this reality by telling themselves and others there is nothing we can do in Syria, that our only options are to let the Syrians fight it out alone to the bitter end or to launch a massive and costly military intervention. But the truth is there are many options that we have the capability to undertake that would save lives and protect our important strategic interests in Syria.

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 the rebel fighters in Syria, including providing responsible members of the armed opposition who share our goals and our values with the arms they need to succeed.

In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, I asked Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey whether they agreed with a proposal reportedly developed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus last summer to have the United States arm and train members of the Syrian opposition. I was very pleased to hear both Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey state that they supported this proposal which, unfortunately, was refused by the White House. What this means is that the President overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team who were in unanimous agreement that America needs to take greater action to change the military balance of power in Syria.

Beyond providing arms to the opposition, we have other capabilities at our disposal that could make a decisive difference on the ground and save lives. I will give just two examples. NATO has deployed PATRIOT missile batteries in Turkey that are capable of shooting down Syrian aircraft as far south as Aleppo. We could establish a limited no-fly zone using these systems and, believe me, after the first few Syrian aircraft are shot down, I doubt Assad's pilots will be lining up to fly missions anymore. Another option would be to destroy Assad's aircraft on their runways with cruise missiles and other standoff weapons. Either way, we can take Syrian air power off the table.

Once defended, these safe havens could become platforms for increased deliveries of food and medicine, communications equipment, doctors to treat the wounded, and other nonlethal 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 antitank 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.

Would these actions immediately end the conflict? No. But would they save lives in Syria? Would they give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed and marginalize the radicals? Would they help the West regain the trust of the Syrian people? Do we have the capability to make a difference? To me, the answer to all these questions is clearly yes. Yes, there are risks to greater involvement in Syria. The opposition is still struggling to get organized. Al-Qaida and the 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.

What is needed is American leadership. What is needed is a reminder of the words Abraham Lincoln spoke in his annual message to Congress in 1862: ``We--even we here--hold the power, and bear the responsibility.''

As we mark 2 years of this horrific conflict, if there were ever a case that should remind us of this responsibility, it is that of Syria.

A few months ago, The Washington Post interviewed a young Bosnian man who had survived the genocide of Srebrenica in 1995. This is how he sees the ongoing slaughter in Syria:

It's bazaar 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. The conflict in Syria today is nearly indistinguishable from that in Bosnia during the 1990s. As Leon Wieseltier wrote earlier this week in ``The New Republic''--I ask unanimous consent that the complete column by Leon Wieseltier be printed in the Record.


Mr. McCAIN. Again, as Leon Wieseltier wrote earlier this week in the New Republic:

I am finding crushing parallels: A President who is satisfied to be a bystander, and ornaments his prevarications with high moral pronouncements; an extenuation of American passivity by appeals to insurmountable complexities and obscurities on the ground, and to ethnic and religious divisions too deep and too old to be modified by statecraft, and to ominous warnings of anticipated consequences, as if consequences are ever all anticipated; an arms embargo against the people who require arms most, who are the victims of state power; the use of rape and torture and murder against civilians as open instruments of war; the universal knowledge of crimes against humanity and the failure of that knowledge to affect the policy-making will; the dailiness of the atrocity, its unimpeded progress, the long duration of our shame in doing nothing about it. The parallels are not perfect, of course. Only 70,000 people have been killed in Syria, so what's the rush?

We must ask ourselves: How many more innocent people must die before we take action?

Amidst these crushing parallels, there is one key difference. 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 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 Senator Bob Dole to support President Clinton in that endeavor.

The question for another Democratic President today, and for all of us in a position 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.

I yield the floor.


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