WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio, back from a Middle East trip, said Wednesday that the United States should start supplying ammunition to moderate Syrian opposition groups in order to protect U.S. interests by countering the rise of radical groups.
Rubio met with top Israeli and Jordanian leaders, along with a former Syrian prime minister , last week during a three-day visit. He spoke about the trip at a prominent Washington think tank as he shored up his foreign policy portfolio for a possible 2016 presidential run.
On Iran, Rubio, R-Fla., said U.S. sanctions are damaging the Iranian economy, but he predicted they won’t stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior leaders in Tel Aviv, Rubio stopped short, however, of supporting a military strike by the United States or Israel to take out Iran’s nascent nuclear facilities.
“I agree with their concerns that Iran is moving toward development and deployment of nuclear weapons, and that it is using the (current) negotiations as a ploy,” Rubio said in a luncheon talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Rubio said the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons and the Syrian war are more urgent matters for the security of both Israel and the United States, putting Palestinian peace initiatives on the back burner.
Despite having voted Tuesday against confirming former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary in part because of claims that he’s soft on Israel – the Senate confirmed Hagel with only four Republican votes – Rubio restrained from criticizing Obama, who will make his own visit to Israel next month.
While in Jordan, Rubio met with former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected in August.
Rubio said he was told that Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad are becoming angry because they feel abandoned by the United States and allied Western nations.
Rubio called for extending the current humanitarian aid from Washington to the Syrian Opposition Coalition to include ammunition.
“We don’t have to give them weapons; they have plenty of weapons,” he said. “What they need is ammunition. They are running low on that.”
It is vital to U.S. national security, Rubio said, that radical groups don’t emerge in control of Syria, especially since, he said, they are being armed by Iran, Hezbollah and other enemies of the United States.
“We should want the most dominant, best-equipped groups to be the groups that are friendly to our interests and are listening to us,” he said.
Showing a bit of the quick wit and political adroitness he’ll need if he runs for president, Rubio made a show at the start of his talk of lifting a pitcher of water and pouring some into a coffee mug.
“This is a bit much,” Rubio said. “Why don’t we take care of business right away?”
The audience of diplomats, reporters and Middle East scholars broke up laughing at Rubio’s antic, which came two weeks after he reached for a water bottle while delivering the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address – a pause on live TV that immediately went viral on the Internet.
In Jordan, Rubio met with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. He said Wednesday that they are taking tentative steps toward increased democracy in their country to head off the kind of violent uprisings that have occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria as part of the Arab Spring.
Rubio said Jordanian opposition leaders expressed skepticism to him over the government’s long-term commitment to implementing democratic reforms.
Rubio appeared to share some of their fears that “the reforms are window dressing” and “aren’t real.”
“I’m concerned about the pace of reforms, and I’m concerned about economic growth as well,” Rubio said.
That drew a diplomatic rebuke from the monarchy’s ambassador to the United States, Alia Hatough-Bouran, sitting in the audience, who told Rubio that her government wants to introduce broader reforms.
The envoy also said the 400,000 Syrian refugees who’ve fled war and flooded into Jordan are straining its government.
“This is one step of many, and we are very much committed to that,” Hatough-Bouran said of Amman’s early democratic initiatives.
In a small test of his response to the kind of increased scrutiny Rubio now faces as a possible presidential aspirant, he quickly retreated from his earlier comments, expressing confidence in Jordan’s commitment to reform.
Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa in Israel and a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, came away from Rubio’s 45-minute session impressed by the charismatic Cuban-American senator.
“He’s a very serious person,” Schueftan said of Rubio. “He’s very well-informed. I think he has a very coherent picture. I also happen to agree with almost everything he said.”