Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) created a stir yesterday when he suggested it was time for a U.S. military strike on Syria. Josh Rogin quoted McCain as saying: “What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved. But time is running out. Assad’s forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.”
Later in the day, Sens. McCain, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put out a statement that called for stronger measures, including use of force by the United States. It read in part:
As we continue to isolate Assad diplomatically and economically, we should work with our closest friends and allies to support opposition groups inside Syria, both political and military, to help them organize themselves into a more cohesive and effective force that can put an end to the bloodshed and force Assad and his loyalists to leave power, which has been the goal of United States policy since August 2011.
What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.
Therefore, if requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country.
This should not mean the United States must act alone. Any intervention should include Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Jordan and Qatar, and willing allies in the E.U. and NATO, the most important of which in this case is Turkey.
It is not entirely illogical, and in fact the argument for intervention in Syria, a critical ally of Iran, is perhaps greater than it was for Libya. But no one really expects the administration will do anything so bold. Not surprisingly, an unnamed Obama official promptly rejected the idea.
And in fact, a number of conservatives are wary of U.S. military action. Rogin reported:
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
“Senator McCain’s heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we’ve got to get our allies involved and get them committed,” she said. “So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no.”
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
“The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation,” she said. “I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who’s going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who’s going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?’”
Attacks on Syria now could also create a “domino effect” that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
“Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily,” she said.
Some outside conservative foreign policy gurus agree. One old Middle East hand told me, “While airstrikes are morally justified, it isn’t going to happen. We would need to use carriers, which is more complicated than using NATO bases as in Libya, and the targets aren’t as good. What are we striking? I don’t favor declaring war on Syria, but making sure the people fighting Assad win.” Or as another foreign policy hawk put it, “Don’t start something you ain’t gonna finish.”
Mark Palmer and Paul Wolfowitz have a more measured approach:
Strengthening the Syrian opposition is not an obstacle to a peaceful end to this conflict. To the contrary, it may be the only way to achieve one. By now, the one incentive that might persuade the regime to step down would be the prospect of a safe exit. But that will only work if its alternative is defeat. For that, the Syrian opposition needs a full range of moral, political and material support. . . .
Material support involves more than weapons. Perhaps the most urgent need is for communications equipment and technology. The Assad regime understands this and does everything possible to block communications among opposition groups as well as simple news reports. The U.S. has extraordinary capabilities in this area that should be brought to bear.
Mitt Romney has also said he opposes U.S. military action for now while Rick Santorum took a view closer to McCain:
On Sunday, Mitt Romney took a more restrained line, telling an audience in Georgia that “I’m not anxious to employ military action. Syria is a far more serious military defender than was Libya.” While noting that he was not familiar with the details of McCain’s speech and therefore could only speak in the abstract, Santorum struck a more hawkish tone. . . .
Santorum reiterated his opinion that the U.S. should help to “arm and supply” the Syrian rebels. . . .But Santorum also did not reject the notion of bombing Assad’s army. “I would say that would certainly be one of the things I would consider,” he told me.
But let’s get real. The administration isn’t even keen on the idea of providing aid to the FSA. Perhaps efforts would be better directed in getting the administration to take that minimal step rather than holding out the remote prospect of U.S. military action.