On Heels of Suspected Syrian Gas Attack, McCain Renews Call for U.S. Military Action

Emelie Rutherford, Global Security Newswire
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Emelie Rutherford, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 22, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Sen­at­or John Mc­Cain (R-Ar­iz.) on Thursday said it is “long past time” for U.S. and al­lied na­tions to take lim­ited mil­it­ary ac­tion again Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces, fol­low­ing re­ports of an al­leged chem­ic­al at­tack this week that killed hun­dreds of ci­vil­ians.

Mc­Cain’s strenu­ous re­it­er­a­tion of his plea for Wash­ing­ton’s stronger in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia came as the White House called for Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad to al­low a U.N. team already in the coun­try to in­vest­ig­ate the re­por­ted at­tacks — the most-severe al­leged chem­ic­al strikes against ci­vil­ians in the bloody two years of civil war.

While the U.S. mil­it­ary has not dir­ectly used force against Syr­ia, Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey de­scribed po­ten­tial “lim­ited mil­it­ary op­tions” in a let­ter this week to a U.S. con­gress­man. The top gen­er­al cau­tioned, though, that Syr­i­an rebels might not pro­mote Amer­ic­an in­terests if they gained con­trol of the Middle East­ern na­tion.

Mc­Cain on Thursday said in his state­ment that re­ports of As­sad’s forces es­cal­at­ing their al­leged use of chem­ic­al weapons to in­flict an un­pre­ced­en­ted num­ber of cas­u­al­ties should com­pel Pres­id­ent Obama to pur­sue a po­ten­tially game-chan­ging re­sponse.

“It is long past time for the United States and our friends and al­lies to re­spond to As­sad’s con­tinu­ing mass at­ro­cit­ies in Syr­ia with de­cis­ive ac­tions, in­clud­ing lim­ited mil­it­ary strikes to de­grade As­sad’s air power and bal­list­ic mis­sile cap­ab­il­it­ies,” said Mc­Cain, a seni­or mem­ber of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

Mc­Cain cri­ti­cized Obama for not tak­ing stronger ac­tion in re­sponse to re­ports of the re­gime’s chem­ic­al-weapons use after hav­ing drawn a “red line” last year against any such Syr­i­an as­saults. The Ari­zona sen­at­or, who lost his 2008 White House bid to Obama, charged the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions re­gard­ing Syr­ia have helped weak­en Amer­ic­an cred­ib­il­ity in the Middle East.

“As a res­ult, the killing goes on, As­sad re­mains in power, and his use of chem­ic­al weapons against Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians ap­par­ently con­tin­ues,” Mc­Cain said, build­ing on his pre­vi­ous cri­ti­cism of U.S. policy on Syr­ia.

Josh Earn­est, a White House spokes­man, on Thursday called for As­sad to grant the U.N. in­vest­ig­a­tion team im­me­di­ate ac­cess to the site of the al­leged pois­on at­tack near Dam­as­cus, so they can talk to eye­wit­nesses and take phys­ic­al samples from the en­vir­on­ment and sus­pec­ted vic­tims. He re­layed the same re­quest a day earli­er.

“You have an As­sad re­gime that denies re­spons­ib­il­ity for the use of these chem­ic­al weapons. The easi­est way for them to demon­strate that they are on the side of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity in op­pos­i­tion to the use of chem­ic­al weapons is to al­low this U.N. team full ac­cess to the site to try to get to the bot­tom of what happened,” Earn­est told re­port­ers aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials also are in touch with their coun­ter­parts around the world “to co­ordin­ate on our re­sponse,” the Obama spokes­man said.

Syr­i­an rebels provided hor­rif­ic de­scrip­tions and videos of the al­leged at­tacks, which some ac­counts claim killed more than 1,000 people. The As­sad re­gime dis­missed re­ports of the grue­some carnage as made up by the rebel fight­ers.

Deputy U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Jan Eli­asson on Wed­nes­day told re­port­ers that he and Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon hoped the Syr­i­an re­gime would con­sent to al­low­ing U.N. in­vest­ig­at­ors to probe the latest chem­ic­al-strike charges. The world body’s Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, though, stopped short of for­cing a probe of the Syr­i­an rebels’ al­leg­a­tions.

Maria Cristina Per­cev­al, an Ar­gen­tini­an am­bas­sad­or who is serving as ro­tat­ing pres­id­ent of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil this month, late on Wed­nes­day told re­port­ers that there is “strong con­cern among the coun­cil mem­bers.” Fol­low­ing an emer­gency meet­ing of the coun­cil, she said mem­bers be­lieve they need more clar­ity on what happened in Syr­ia and want to fol­low de­vel­op­ments closely, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. News Ser­vice.

Eli­asson on Wed­nes­day told re­port­ers that there had been no con­firm­a­tion of the pois­on-gas at­tack and seni­or U.N. of­fi­cials were in con­tact with the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to the news out­let. He said the U.N.-sponsored in­vest­ig­a­tion team already in Syr­ia prob­ing oth­er al­leged chem­ic­al at­tacks, led by Swedish arms ex­pert Ake Sell­strom, was poised to act.

In terms of U.S. in­volve­ment in the on­go­ing con­flict, De­mp­sey said in his Aug. 19 let­ter that the United States, the­or­et­ic­ally, could pur­sue lim­ited mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia that would com­mit Wash­ing­ton to a dir­ect role in the civil war but, at the same time, would of­fer little value in terms of of­fer­ing rebel forces a de­cis­ive edge.

The four-star gen­er­al took some flack on Cap­it­ol Hill last month for a let­ter he wrote ex­press­ing re­ser­va­tions about the Pentagon’s dir­ect use of force, in the form of stand-off strikes of high-value As­sad re­gime forces and fa­cil­it­ies that could cost bil­lions of dol­lars.

De­mp­sey’s Ju­ly 19 let­ter went to Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in (D-Mich.), while his latest missive was a re­sponse to a query from House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Rank­ing Mem­ber Eli­ot En­gel (D-N.Y.).

De­mp­sey told En­gel, in the let­ter the con­gress­man’s of­fice re­leased on Wed­nes­day, that “there are cer­tainly ac­tions short of tip­ping the bal­ance of the con­flict [in fa­vor of the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion] that could im­pose a cost on [As­sad’s forces] for un­ac­cept­able be­ha­vi­or.” Those in­clude des­troy­ing the Syr­i­an air force, the U.S. gen­er­al said.

“The loss of As­sad’s air force would neg­ate his abil­ity to at­tack op­pos­i­tion forces from the air, but it would also es­cal­ate and po­ten­tially fur­ther com­mit the United State to the con­flict,” De­mp­sey wrote. “Stated an­oth­er way, it would not be mil­it­ar­ily de­cis­ive, but it would com­mit us de­cis­ively to the con­flict.”

De­mp­sey cau­tioned that choos­ing sides in Syr­ia would not be simple for the United States, which in real­ity would have to choose “among many sides.”

“It is my be­lief that the side we choose must be ready to pro­mote their in­terests and ours when the bal­ance shifts in their fa­vor,” he wrote. “Today, they are not.” He said the United States should “eval­u­ate the ef­fect­ive­ness of lim­ited mil­it­ary op­tions” while con­sid­er­ing there is a deeply rooted, long-term con­flict among sun­dry fac­tions in Syr­ia.

De­mp­sey said the United States has ad­di­tion­al op­tions for ac­tion in Syr­ia, in­clud­ing “ex­pan­ded ca­pa­city-build­ing ef­forts with re­gion­al part­ners and a sig­ni­fic­ant in­vest­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of a mod­er­ate Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion.”

Dur­ing the White House press con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day, Earn­est noted that Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said even “be­fore there was an in­tel­li­gence-com­munity as­sess­ment that chem­ic­al weapons had been used, that those in­di­vidu­als who were re­spons­ible for safe­guard­ing chem­ic­al weapons would be held ac­count­able for the way that those chem­ic­al weapons are handled.”

He noted lim­ited U.S. as­sist­ance to Syr­i­an rebel fight­ers, in the form of small arms, as well as hu­man­it­ari­an as­sist­ance to ci­vil­ians. He ac­know­ledged that there is more “work that can be done with our in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners to try to con­tin­ue to pres­sure the As­sad re­gime.”

The White House spokes­man in­dic­ated that Obama is not ready to call for more-sig­ni­fic­ant U.S. mil­it­ary as­sist­ance to Syr­i­an rebels.

Obama “has as­sessed that the best way for us to tackle this prob­lem is to work closely with our in­ter­na­tion­al al­lies to present a united front to the As­sad re­gime,” Earn­est said.

The gov­ern­ment-con­trolled Syr­i­an Ar­ab News Agency re­por­ted Thursday that an “of­fi­cial spokes­man” at the coun­try’s For­eign and Ex­pat­ri­ates Min­istry charged that Syr­i­an rebels made up the re­ports that of tox­ic-gas at­tacks near Dam­as­cus be­cause they didn’t like the agree­ment the re­gime made with the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity to in­vest­ig­ate oth­er al­leged at­tacks in the coun­try.

“The spokes­man said that the For­eign and Ex­pat­ri­ates Min­istry af­firms that these al­leg­a­tions are false and un­true, and that the min­istry would like to point out that Syr­ia has re­peatedly an­nounced that it will nev­er use any weapons of mass de­struc­tion against its own people, if such weapons ex­ist,” the Syr­i­an news out­let re­por­ted.

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