President Bashar Assad is winning the civil war in Syria, Sen. John McCain said Thursday, saying the United States must rethink its policy there and in the rest of the Middle East if it wants to avoid a regional war that would weaken many of America’s closest allies.
McCain’s prescription for Syria was not particularly surprising – he’s long advocated sending weapons to the rebels – but the darkness of his vision, coming just 10 days after he met with moderate rebel commanders in northern Syria, was a rarity among U.S. officials, who for the first two years of the conflict there repeatedly had vowed that Assad’s days were numbered.
“Assad has turned the tide of battle, and his supporters have doubled down,” McCain said in his first lengthy remarks since returning from Syria.
McCain said that Iran and Russia were totally committed to Assad’s survival, that the al Qaida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, was the most effective anti-Assad fighting force on the ground, and that moderate rebels were struggling to survive and needed heavy weapons from the United States.
“The commanders I met don’t want to trade Assad for al Nusra,” McCain said, adding that "al Nusra is not open to any indoctrination or move to the center."
"We need the good guys to win," McCain said.
Before Thursday, McCain had been uncharacteristically silent about his May 27 meeting with the leader of the moderate Syrian rebels, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, and a dozen other commanders. With the exception of a brief appearance on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, he had made no public statements about the visit.
The Brookings Institution, the liberal Washington think tank where the Republican senator from Arizona spoke, touted it as a "major address," a term that might have been dismissed as hyperbole were it not for the anticipation with which his appearance was greeted – 19 television news cameras, most of them from non-American news outlets, were arrayed across the rear of the room, and every seat in the auditorium was taken. Listeners without seats crowded the aisles.
They heard little cheerful in McCain’s assessment, and not just about Syria.
Noting that more than 1,000 people had been killed in violence in Iraq last month, he said the sectarian wounds that had killed tens of thousands during the American occupation of Iraq had been reopened and that "al Qaida in Iraq is back."
He said that western parts of Libya "were ungovernable," and that Tunisia, Egypt and Mali were in need of military assistance to rebuild their militaries and police forces.
Ten percent of the population of Jordan was now made up of Syrian refugees, he said. "Imagine if that were the situation in the United States, what a burden that would be," he said.
Most of alarming of all, he said, "is how little Americans seem to care."
"The entire Middle East is now up for grabs and our enemies are fully committed,” he said. “The only power not committed is us."
His policy prescriptions were many. He said the Pentagon must drop its concerns about Assad’s anti-aircraft defense systems and set up a no-fly zone, with cruise missiles, if necessary, to allow Syria’s opposition to establish a presence inside Syria. "We need to give them a Benghazi," he said, referring to the city in eastern Libya where opponents of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were headquartered before Gadhafi was toppled.
The United States, he said, must take advantage of the controversy surrounding the intervention in Syria by the Lebanese group Hezbollah to seek its "strategic defeat," blocking its funding and "destroying it in Lebanon."
He said the United States should assist Libya to build a national army and Tunisia to create a border security force.
The United States should consider a new policy toward Egypt, he said, including reconsideration of the billions of dollars in foreign aid that the U.S. sends that country, a legacy of the U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel.
"Many who had high hopes" for Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak "have been and are being disappointed" by the government of President Mohammed Morsi, McCain said, citing the recent prison sentences handed out to 43 people, including 16 Americans, who were charged with crimes for working for pro-democracy organizations there.
"Congress needs to reconsider where it spends its money," McCain said.
Most of all, he called on President Barack Obama to change policies and then persuade the American people, who polls show are unenthusiastic about more U.S. involvement in Syria, to get on board.
"Only the president can get people to rally," he said.
Later, he acknowledged during a question and answer session it might be difficult to change the public view.
"At least," he said, "we should have a national dialogue on the issue. It’s important. There are still people who are praying that we will come to their assistance."