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Public Statements


Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, today I and my colleagues are here to speak about Syria. The strategic and humanitarian costs of this conflict continue to be devastating, not just for the people of Syria but for vital American interests. As today's Washington Post editorial makes clear, nearly all of the terrible consequences that those opposed to intervention predicted would happen if we intervened in Syria have happened because we have not.

There is mounting evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the Asad regime. As many of our colleagues have noted--including Senator Feinstein, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee--President Obama's redline on Syria has been crossed. But instead of acting, the Obama administration has called for additional evidence to be collected by U.N. investigators who have not yet set foot in Syria and probably never will. In the absence of more robust action, I fear it will not be long before Asad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale.

Moreover, as I have said before, by drawing a redline on chemical weapons, the President actually gave the Asad regime a green light to use every other weapon in his arsenal with impunity. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed indiscriminately with snipers, artillery, helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and even ballistic missiles. Indeed, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, more than 4,300 civilians have been killed by Syria's airstrikes alone since July 2012.

At the same time, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are building a network of militias inside Syria and the al-Qaida-aligned al-Nusra Front has gained unprecedented strength on the ground. According to estimates published in the media, some believe there were no more than a few hundred al-Nusra fighters in Syria last year, but today it is widely believed there could be thousands of extremist fighters inside Syria. They are gaining strength by the day because they are the best, most experienced fighters. They are well-funded and are providing humanitarian assistance in the parts of Syria where people need it most.

At the same time, this conflict is having increasingly devastating consequences to the security and stability of our allies and partners in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has characterized the situation in Syria as an "existential threat'' for Lebanon, where the government estimates that 1 million Syrians have entered the country--1 million Syrians have entered the country of Lebanon--which has a population of just over 4 million. Similarly, over the past 2 years, more than 500,000 Syrians have flooded into Jordan, a country of only 6 million people. Consider for a moment that in proportional terms this would be equivalent to 26 million refugees, or the entire population of Texas, suddenly crossing our own borders.

In short, Syria is becoming a failed state in the heart of the Middle East overrun by thousands of al-Qaida-affiliated fighters, with possibly tons of chemical weapons, and poised to ignite a wider sectarian conflict that could profoundly destabilize the region.

Yesterday brought news that the administration plans to organize, together with Russia, an international peace conference later this month to seek a negotiated settlement to the war in Syria. All of us--all of us--are in favor of such a political resolution to this conflict. No one wants to see this conflict turn into a fight to the death and total victory for one side or the other. We all want to work toward a political settlement that forms a new governing structure in Syria reflective of the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

But let's be realistic. One of the lessons of the past 2 years is that such a negotiated settlement will not be possible in Syria until the balance of power shifts more decisively against Asad and those around him. Until Asad, as well as his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian backers no longer believe they are winning, what incentive do they have to come to the table and make a deal? This is what two well-meaning United Nations senior envoys have already learned.

Yes, Syrian opposition forces are gaining strength and territory on the ground. But Asad still has air power--a decisive factor in that climate, in that terrain--ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and a host of other advanced weaponry, and he is using all of it. Furthermore, today's news reports that Russia has agreed to sell an advanced air defense system to the Asad regime should lead us once again to ask ourselves whether the path to peace in Syria runs through Moscow.

I know Americans are war-weary and eager to focus on our domestic and economic problems and not foreign affairs. I also know the situation in Syria is complex and there are no ideal options. But the basic choice we face is not complicated: Do the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action? I believe they do.

No one should think the United States has to act alone, put boots on the ground, or destroy every Syrian air defense system to make a difference for the better in Syria.

We have more limited options at our disposal, including limited military options, that can make a positive impact on this crisis.

We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces--a course of action that was recommended last year by President Obama's entire national security team. I am encouraged that Senator Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced legislation this week on this very issue and that he is speaking out about the need for more robust action in Syria, including addressing Asad's air power.

As several key leaders in our own military have pointed out in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee over the past several months--from Gen. James Mattis to ADM James Stavridis--we have the capacity--we have the capacity--to significantly weaken both the Asad regime's air power and its increasing use of ballistic missiles, which pose significant risks as delivery vehicles for chemical weapons.

To address this threat, we could use our precision strike capabilities to target Asad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. Similar weapons could be used to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make Asad's forces think twice about remaining at their posts. We could use the Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside Syria from Asad's aerial bombing and missile attacks.

Would any of these options immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But they could save innocent lives in Syria. They could give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed in marginalizing radical actors and eventually provide security and responsible governance in Syria after Asad falls. However, the longer we wait, the worse the situation gets and the tougher it will be to confront, as we will inevitably be forced to do sooner or later.

I am encouraged that a consensus is emerging and many of our colleagues--Democrats and Republicans alike--share this view. I note the leadership of Senator Levin, the chairman of our Armed Services Committee, whom I joined in writing a letter to President Obama urging him to take more active steps in Syria. I also note the important voice Senator Bob Casey has lent to this debate and ask unanimous consent that his op-ed printed last week in the Huffington Post, ``Time to Act in Syria''--which calls for consideration of more options, including cruise missile strikes to neutralize the Syrian Air Force--be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

[From the Huffington Post, May 9, 2013]
Time to Act in Syria

(By Bob Casey)
Last week, I joined a bipartisan group of senators to ask the President whether the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. The administration's response suggests mounting evidence of chemical weapons underscores the imperative that the United States stand with the people of Syria during this critical period.

The fall of Assad is not only good for Syria, but will deal a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah. Degrading the destructive power of Iran and Hezbollah is in the national security interests of the United States--Bashar al-Assad is a key link between them.

In March, Senator Rubio and I offered legislation that could offer a path forward. Since that time, several senators have cosponsored the measure including Senators Kirk, Coons, Klobuchar, Levin, Cardin, Boxer and Shaheen. This legislation would provide support to the armed and political opposition, increase humanitarian aid to Syrians inside the country and to refugees in neighboring states. This bill also lays the groundwork to address the immense humanitarian and political challenges in the post-Assad era.

A political transition to a government that reflects the will of the Syrian people is in the core interests of the United States in the region. I have made the case consistently that the U.S. should lead efforts to support the moderate Syrian armed and political opposition. I have also said that the U.S. should consider measures that would hamper the ability of the Syrian Air Force to conduct aerial attacks on civilians, including cruise missile strikes on Syrian Air Force planes as they sit on the tarmac [Foreign Policy 2/27/13]. In addition, the U.S., working with Turkey and NATO, should use Patriot missile batteries to provide cover for Syrians living in the northern part of the country who are subjected to SCUD missile attacks.

Any U.S. action should not result in U.S. boots on the ground.

It is time to act in the interests of our security in the region. Decisive action by the U.S. and our allies could help to tip the balance so that Syria can begin a transition process. Absent constructive engagement by the U.S., I am very concerned that the killing in Syria will continue and extremists will play an increasingly influential role in determining that country's future, resulting in very negative implications for the region.

Mr. McCAIN. Let me conclude with one final thought. For America, our interests are our values and our values are our interests. The moral dimension cannot be lost from our foreign policy. If ever a case should remind us of this, it is Syria.

Leon Wieseltier captured this point powerfully in the New Republic this week:

Seventy thousand people have died in the Syrian war, most of them at the hands of their ruler. Since this number has appeared in the papers for many months, the actual number must be much higher. The slaughter is unceasing. But the debate about American intervention is increasingly conducted in ``realist'' terms: the threat to American interests posed by jihadism in Syria, the intrigues of Iran and Hezbollah, the rattling of Israel, the ruination of Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq. They are all good reasons for the president of the United States to act like the president of the United States. But wouldn't the prevention of ethnic cleansing and genocidal war be reason enough? Is the death of scores and even hundreds of thousands, and the displacement of millions, less significant for American policy, and less quickening? The moral dimension must be restored to our deliberations, the moral sting, or else Obama, for all his talk about conscience, will have presided over a terrible mutilation of American discourse: the severance of conscience from action.

Nearly two decades ago, I worked with Democratic and Republican colleagues in Congress to support President Clinton as he led America to do the right thing in stopping mass atrocities in Bosnia. The question for another President today, and for all Americans, is whether we will again answer the desperate pleas for rescue that are made uniquely to us, as the United States of America.

I, first, would ask both of my colleagues one question, if it would be all right. There is news today that the Secretary of State wants to convene a conference, including the Russians, in order to try to bring about a resolution at the same time we read reports that the Russians are selling Syria the most advanced weapons. I guess I would ask my colleague from South Carolina and then Senator Levin because I know he has a statement.


Mr. McCAIN. Can I just ask one question of my colleague? I understand recently he made a trip to the Middle East. There is nothing like seeing the terrible consequences of war. I understand the Senator visited a refugee camp.

Maybe for the benefit of our colleagues the Senator could take a minute to describe the horrible conditions people who have now been made refugees have been subjected to and their failure to understand why we won't be able to be of more assistance to them.


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