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

Emelie Rutherford, Global Security Newswire

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.