McCain Says Right Strikes Can Hurt Assad's Capabilities

Sep 3, 2013
Originally published on September 3, 2013 1:18 pm

By "taking out Bashar Assad's delivery capabilities of chemical weapons" the U.S. can make it much harder for the Syrian leader to wage war against his people and perhaps level the fighting field or turn it in favor of Assad's opponents, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday on Morning Edition.

The 2008 Republican presidential nominee was making the rounds of national news shows on the same day that the Senate returns to start debating President Obama's request for authorization to use force against Syria in response to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons last month.

As we noted earlier:

First up on the congressional agenda are hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A "top secret/closed" session is set for 9 a.m. ET Tuesday. Later, at 2:30 p.m. ET., the committee plans to hold an open hearing. Set to testify: Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

McCain, a member of the Foreign Relations committee and a leading Republican voice on international affairs and national security, was asked by Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep if he believes Obama is "leaning toward strikes that, while they would be punishing Syria for chemical weapons, would be designed to also influence the course of the civil war?"

"I believe that," McCain said. "By taking out Bashar Assad's delivery capabilities of chemical weapons you also take out his abilities. And right now his air assets are a key element in the advantage he has over the battlefield."

McCain also said he is convinced there are elements of the Syrian opposition that the U.S. should support and that are capable of running that nation. "Both the Free Syrian Council and the Free Syrian Army are all good and legitimate people," he said.

On other news shows Tuesday, McCain:

-- Said Obama is "seriously" considering providing weapons to some of the Syrian opposition. (CNN's New Day)

-- Suggested the president "needs to talk to the American people from the Oval Office, from his desk in the Oval Office and show the American people again these pictures of the bodies stacked up, show them the horrific situation of a million children refugees, of the 100,000 killed." (CBS This Morning)

-- Repeated his view that a "no" vote by Congress would be "catastrophic. ... It does horrendous damage to the credibility of the president of the United States." (NBC's The Today Show)

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good mooring. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. We got on the phone with Senator John McCain this morning. He's among the lawmakers President Obama is asking to support a strike on Syria over chemical weapons. Unlike some others, McCain is calling for extensive strikes. He's more willing than the president has been to use force to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I would like to have the United States play a very important role without putting American boots on the ground, which would be unacceptable to the United States and people and counterproductive in nature. But we have the capability to take out Bashar Assad's air capabilities, which are a key element in his advantage and his delivery capabilities of chemical weapons and also to provide weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which is the most viable and capable force on the ground battling against Bashar Assad.

INSKEEP: Senator McCain, you said a moment ago you heard some encouraging signs from the president. Are you suggesting that you think the president is leaning toward strikes that while they would be punishing Syria for chemical weapons...

MCCAIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...would be designed also to influence the course of the civil war, to lessen the government of Syria's capability to fight.

MCCAIN: I am - I believe that, and I believe that by taking out Bashar Assad's delivery capabilities of chemical weapons, you also take out his abilities. And right now, his air assets are a key element in the advantage that he has over the battlefield, not only because they attack the Free Syrian Army not only because they transport weapons and people all around Syria, which they can't do very well over land, but they also - these plane loads of weapons that come in from Russia and Iran are also a key element. Remember, we've got 5,000 Hezbollah fighting also on the side of Bashar Assad, and it's turning into a regional conflict, which is not in the United States' national security interest.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you, Senator McCain, if there is a risk to the United States of getting more deeply involved, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former ambassador Ryan Crocker, whom I'm sure you know well, former ambassador to Syria, Iraq and other dangerous places, warned the other day, once you start done this road, it's pretty hard to get off it, meaning once the United States seriously commits to get ridding of Assad, the United States might have to pour more and more resources into it. Is that a risk that we need to be prepared for if the country follows the course that you recommend?

MCCAIN: I think it's always a risk if - but I also know that those decisions are up to the decision makers, and it is not a viable option to have American boots on the ground or having significant escalation. Look, I am one of the most ardent admirers of Ambassador Crocker. I think he's the finest diplomat that I have ever encountered. But is the status quo acceptable? A hundred thousand people massacred, a million children displaced and the conflict is spreading. Obviously, Iraq is unraveling, and al-Qaida is reconstituting itself vigorously in the Syria-Iraq border, Lebanon has destabilized, the king of Jordan can not last, in his own words, and, of course, the Iranians greater and greater involvement.

INSKEEP: Senator, many people will know that you have visited Syria. You've spoken with Syrian rebels.


INSKEEP: As you think about the situation now, do you find anyone on the Syrian rebel side that makes you say, yeah, sure, they can run the country, it'd be fine?

MCCAIN: Sure. Both the Free Syrian Council and the Free Syrian Army are all good and legitimate people. The myth that has been pervade that somehow we don't know who they are is not true. The myth that they are not capable if they have the right weapons is also not true. They are fighting tanks with AK-47s. It is not a fair fight. It's kind of amazing they've done as well as they have given the preponderance of capabilities on Bashar Assad's size. Al-Nusra and the extremists are in the northern part of the country.

They're not doing much fighting. They're trying to impose sharia law. And finally, Steve, I'd like to remind you Syria is not an extremist country. It's a very moderate country. The people of Syria would not stand for extremist rulers that taken over that country, and that's - and I'm sure that history will bear that out.

INSKEEP: Arizona Senator John McCain, thanks very much for the time.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on, Steve. Could I just also point out that if we vote down this resolution, it sends a terrible message to the world that the president of the United States has said the United States will act and then the United States doesn't act. So I think it would be very serious if we do not - if we voted down this resolution. I'm trying to get the right kind of resolution.

INSKEEP: Is it possible you could vote it down given what you've just said?

MCCAIN: If I believe it's a resolution that will only call for a few pinprick-type actions against Syria and not change the equation on the ground, I don't see how I can support it. The president is, obviously, in a very difficult situation.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks again.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And by the way today, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will testify before a Senate committee that includes John McCain of Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.