Arm Syrian rebels, leading GOP senators say

  • Article by: By ALISSA J. RUBIN New York Times
  • Updated: February 19, 2012 - 7:17 PM

They assert that toppling Assad would weaken Iran.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - With the Syrian government continuing its deadly crackdown on its citizens, two senior U.S. senators who were on their way to the Mideast spoke out strongly Sunday in favor of arming 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 Syrian President Bashar Assad. The senators, both of whom are on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the 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," 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.

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.

Graham also endorsed arming those who are fighting Assad, and he suggested that the Arab League, which has called for Assad's departure, could be a conduit. A byproduct of a more interventionist policy would be to weaken Iran, he agreed.

"Breaking Syria apart from Iran could be as important to containing a nuclear Iran as sanctions," 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 multi-pronged approach that included urging President Obama to make more use of his office to criticize Syria and to show U.S. backing for the Assad government's opponents.

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