It’s Time to Use American Airpower in Syria

It is estimated that more than 7,500 lives have been lost. The United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners. Bashar Al-Assad is now doing to Homs what his father did to Hama. Aerial photographs procured by Human Rights Watch show a city that has been laid to waste by Assad’s tanks and artillery. A British photographer who was wounded and evacuated from the city described it as “a medieval siege and slaughter.” The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic’s war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia’s annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny.

What is all the more astonishing is that Assad’s killing spree has continued despite severe and escalating international pressure against him. His regime is almost completely isolated. It has been expelled from the Arab League, rebuked by the United Nations General Assembly, excoriated by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and abandoned by nearly every country that once maintained diplomatic relations with it. At the same time, Assad’s regime is facing a punishing array of economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, and others—measures that have targeted the assets of Assad and his henchmen, cut off the Central Bank and other financial institutions, grounded Syria’s cargo flights, and restricted the regime’s ability to sell oil. This has been an impressive international effort, and the Administration deserves a lot of credit for helping to orchestrate it.

The problem is, the bloodletting continues. Despite a year’s worth of diplomacy backed by sanctions, Assad and his top lieutenants show no signs of giving up and taking the path into foreign exile. To the contrary, they appear to be accelerating their fight to the finish. And they are doing so with the shameless support of foreign governments, especially in Russia, China, and Iran. A steady supply of weapons, ammunition, and other assistance is flowing to Assad from Moscow and Tehran, and as The Washington Post reported yesterday, Iranian military and intelligence operatives are likely active in Syria, helping to direct and sharpen the regime’s brutality. The Security Council is totally shut down as an avenue for increased pressure, and the recently convened Friends of Syria contact group, while a good step in principle, produced mostly rhetoric but precious little action when it met last month in Tunisia. Unfortunately, with each passing day, the international response to Assad’s atrocities is being overtaken by events on the ground in Syria.

Some countries are finally beginning to acknowledge this reality, as well as its implications. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are calling for arming opposition forces in Syria. The newly-elected Kuwaiti parliament has called on their government to do the same. Last week, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that providing arms to opposition forces in Syria could help them shift the balance of power against Assad. Most importantly, Syrians themselves are increasingly calling for international military involvement. The opposition Syrian National Council recently announced that it is establishing a military bureau to channel weapons and other assistance to the Free Syrian Army and armed groups inside the country. Other members of the Council are demanding a more robust intervention.

(…) This regime in Syria serves as the main forward operating base of the Iranian regime in the heart of the Arab world. It has supported Palestinian terrorist groups and funneled arms of all kinds, including tens of thousands of rockets, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It remains a committed enemy of Israel. It has large stockpiles of chemical weapons and materials and has sought to develop a nuclear weapons capability. It was the primary gateway for the countless foreign fighters who infiltrated into Iraq and killed our troops. Assad and his lieutenants have the blood of hundreds of Americans on their hands. Many in Washington fear that what comes after Assad might be worse. How could it be any worse than this?

The end of the Assad regime would sever Hezbollah’s lifeline to Iran, eliminate a long-standing threat to Israel, bolster Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, and inflict a strategic defeat on the Iranian regime. It would be a geopolitical success of the first order. More than all of the compelling moral and humanitarian reasons, this is why Assad cannot be allowed to succeed and remain in power: We have a clear national security interest in his defeat. And that alone should incline us to tolerate a large degree of risk in order to see that this goal is achieved.

John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona. This text is a speech he delivered on the Senate floor and agreed to publish as a TNR article.

The above article was published in tnr.com on March 5th, 2012 (3:12 p.m.).

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