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McCain on Syria: 'How many more have to die?'

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McCain on Syria: 'How many more have to die?'

U.S. Sen. John McCain gave the following remarks on Syria on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday (as prepared for delivery):

Mr. President: Before the senator from Connecticut and I join in a colloquy on the situation in Syria, I would like to make some brief remarks on that subject.

It should come as no surprise to any of my colleagues, and it certainly comes as no surprise to me, that the civil war raging in Syria has only deteriorated further over the past two weeks. On Saturday, May 26, we read the horrific news of a massacre that Bashar al-Assad's forces committed in the Syrian town of Houla. At least 108 civilians, the majority of them women and children, are now believed to have been killed – some from repeated shelling by Assad's tanks and artillery, but most slaughtered in their homes and executed in the streets. Survivors describe a scene so gruesome that, even after 16 months of bloodshed and more than 10,000 dead, it still manages to shock the conscience. There are now reports of another massacre by Assad's force, with as many as 78 Syrians dead, and that Syrian authorities are blocking access to the scene for the U.N. monitors on the ground.

These massacres of civilians are sickening and evil, but it is only the latest and most appalling evidence that there is no limit to the savagery of Assad and his forces. They will do anything, kill anyone, and stop at nothing to hold onto power. And what has been the response of the United States and the rest of the civilized world to this most recent mass atrocity in Syria? More empty words of scorn and condemnation. More hollow pledges that the killing must stop. More strained expressions of amazement at what has become so tragically commonplace.

Indeed, as Jeffrey Goldberg has noted, administration officials are now at risk of running out of superlative adjectives and adverbs with which to condemn the violence in Syria. They have called it, quote, "heinous,""outrageous," "unforgiveable," "breathtaking," "disgraceful," and many other synonyms for the same. I do not know what else they can call it. And yet, the killing goes on.

The administration now appears to be so desperate that they are returning to old ideas that have already been tried and failed. Let me quote from a New York Times article that appeared on May 27:

In a new effort to halt more than a year of bloodshed in Syria, President Obama will push for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad under a proposal modeled on the transition in another strife-torn Arab country, Yemen…. The success of the plan hinges on Russia, one of Mr. Assad's staunchest allies, which has strongly opposed his removal.

This is a case of history repeating itself as farce. Trying to enlist Russia in a policy of regime change in Syria is exactly what the administration spent months doing earlier this year, and that approach was decisively rejected by Russia when it vetoed a toothless sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council in February.

And how is this recycled policy working out? Well, last week, a human rights organization disclosed that on May 26, a Russian ship delivered the latest Russian supply of heavy weapons to the Assad regime in the port of Tartus. Last Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the Houla massacre – and blamed it on the opposition. President Putin, after blowing off a trip to Washington in favor of a visit to Europe, suggested that foreign powers were also to blame for the Houla massacre. He went on to reject further sanctions on the Assad regime and to deny that Russia is shipping any relevant weapons to Assad.

Not to be outdone, the Russian Foreign Minister, also last week, described the situation in Syria this way: "It takes two to dance – although this seems less like a tango and more like a disco, where several dozens are taking part at once."

You might think this alone would be enough to disabuse the administration of its insistence, against all empirical evidence, that Russia is the key to ending the violence in Syria. You might think so, but you would be wrong. Asked last week whether he could envision some kind of military intervention in Syria without a U.N. Security Council resolution, which is subject to a Russian and Chinese veto, the Secretary of Defense said no, he cannot envision it. Similarly, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, rejected the idea of providing weapons to the Syrian people to help them defend themselves, saying that would lead to, quote, "chaos and carnage." The White House, he said, prefers not to militarize the conflict.

It is difficult even to muster a response to statements and actions such as these. U.S. policy in Syria now seems to be subject to the approval of Russian leaders who are arming Assad's forces and who believe that the slaughter of more than 10,000 people in Syria can be compared to a disco party. Meanwhile, the administration refuses even to provide weapons to Syrians who are struggling and dying in an unfair fight – all for fear of, quote, "militarizing the conflict." If only the Russians, and the Iranians, and Al-Qaeda shared that lofty sentiment.

I pray that President Obama will finally realize what President Clinton came to understand during the Balkans wars. President Clinton – who took military action to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and who did so in Kosovo without a U.N. Security Council mandate – ultimately understood that, when regimes are willing to commit any atrocity to stay in power, diplomacy cannot succeed until the military balance of power changes on the ground. As long as Assad and his foreign supporters think they can win militarily, which they do, they will continue fighting, and more Syrians will die. In short, military intervention of some kind is a prerequisite to the political resolution of the conflict that we all want to achieve.

The question I would pose to my colleague from Connecticut, and to the administration, is this: How many more have to die? How many more people have to die in Syria before the United States will assume its responsibility of leadership?

John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona.

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