Beirut, Lebanon – With the Syrian government continuing its deadly crackdown on its citizens, two senior American senators who were on their way to the Middle East spoke out strongly on Sunday in favor of arming the Syrian opposition forces.
The two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, laid out a series of diplomatic, humanitarian and military aid proposals that would put the United States squarely behind the effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The senators, both of whom are on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that rebel fighters deserved to be armed and that helping them take on the Syrian government would aid Washington’s effort to weaken Iran.
Syria relies on Iran for financial and military support, and the governments in Damascus and Tehran have sectarian ties as well: Iran has strongly backed the Syrian Shiite minority and the offshoot Alawite sect that dominates Syria’s ruling class.
“I believe there are ways to get weapons to the opposition without direct United States involvement,” Mr. McCain said. “The Iranians and the Russians are providing Bashar Assad with weapons. People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves.”
“So I am not only not opposed,” he said, “but I am in favor of weapons being obtained by the opposition.”
The detail in their comments, made at a news conference during their visit to the Afghan capital, appeared to signal that these were themes that they would address when they arrived in Cairo, their next stop. The senators were leading a bipartisan delegation that stopped in Kabul to meet with military officials, diplomats and President Hamid Karzai.
Mr. McCain said the United States would not have to send weapons directly to the opposition but could work through “third world countries” and the Arab League.
Senator Graham also endorsed arming those who are fighting Mr. Assad, and he suggested that the Arab League, which has called for Mr. Assad’s departure, could be a conduit. A byproduct of a more interventionist policy would be to weaken Iran.
“Breaking Syria apart from Iran could be as important to containing a nuclear Iran as sanctions,” Mr. Graham said. “If the Syrian regime is replaced with another form of government that doesn’t tie its future to the Iranians, the world is a better place.”
Both senators backed a multipronged approach that included urging President Obama to make more use of his office to chastise Syria and to show United States backing for the Assad government’s opponents.
Mr. Graham said that the United States should continue to push its position at the United Nations Security Council, but he said it also must work with the Arab League, in part to continue the pressure on Russia and China to change their stances. Two weeks ago, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that called for Mr. Assad to step down.
“We have to form a track outside the United Nations using the Arab League as the center of gravity, putting on the table humanitarian and economic assistance with also the possibility of arms possibly being provided at a later date,” Mr. Graham said.