The Magazine

On Syria, Follow McCain

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By LEE SMITH
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Here’s to John McCain, leading from the front. Last week, the Arizona senator cut through all the White House doubletalk on the Syrian uprising and demanded a more active U.S. policy, including provision of arms to the Free Syrian Army as well as airpower to slow the assaults of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.

Photo of two Syrian rebels evacuating an injured fellow rebel

Two Syrian rebels evacuate an injured fellow rebel in Idlib, February 8, 2012.

AP

McCain grilled senior administration officials and military officers, and set the record straight regarding the disposition of the Syrian rebels. Over the past several weeks, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both claimed, without evidence, that al Qaeda had infiltrated the opposition. Last week McCain countered: The Syrian rebels are “not fighting and dying because they are Muslim extremists.” The administration then started to walk back its charges. What the White House really meant, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is that al Qaeda is looking to “exploit” the situation.

As well they might. The Syrian uprising is now a year old. There is no official toll, but the dead may number 10,000 or more. It’s gone on long enough, says McCain. With his Senate colleagues Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, McCain released a statement calling for “relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges. .  .  . Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.” The three senators realize that this “will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country.”

As usual, the administration had excuses for inaction. “That air defense system,” Panetta told the Senate, “is pretty sophisticated.” According to the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, it is “approximately five times more sophisticated .  .  . than existed in Libya.”

McCain bristled. “We spend almost $1 trillion a year on the military,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And we can’t take out air defenses of Syria? That is an horrific waste of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

McCain’s right. We’re not talking about NORAD here. In 2007 the Israelis had no trouble disabling Syrian air defenses before their air raid on the Al Kibar nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. And that was hardly the first time the Israeli Air Force ran roughshod over the Syrians. Damascus’s Russian-supplied air capabilities, defensive and offensive, are a running joke in the region.

In the June 1982 air battle over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, it took the Israelis only half a day to destroy almost all of Syria’s Soviet-made surface-to-air-missile batteries as well as 29 Soviet-supplied aircraft. Within three days the rout was complete; the IAF downed 82 Syrian planes without a single loss of its own.

That was a victory for Jerusalem and for Washington. The confrontation showed that Soviet arms were far inferior to American weapons—even making allowance for the fact that it was Syrians at the controls. The Bekaa Valley turkey shoot, as some still refer to the 1982 debacle, was facilitated by the Syrians keeping their mobile missile systems in one place for several months because they didn’t like digging latrines.

Perhaps that example—and the memory that bad things can happen when Moscow ties its vital interests to a Syrian military whose chief capability seems to be murdering unarmed civilians—is not lost on Vladimir Putin. The recently reelected Russian president is standing by Assad, but admits he doesn’t know how much longer the regime can last.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration is putting way too much emphasis on Russia’s calculations. It’s waiting on a Putin change of heart because it fears that U.S. material support of the Free Syrian Army will convince the Russians that the conflict is a proxy war. But the Russians already perceive it as a proxy war. So do the Iranians, which is why both are pouring in as much support as they can to keep Assad afloat. The administration’s response to Russian intransigence was to hold a Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia that was so incommensurate with the bloody reality it aimed to address that even the Saudi foreign minister stormed out in disgust.

For the United States, the key issue should be countering Iran. As General James Mattis, the head of CENTCOM, said, the fall of Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.” During his Senate testimony the next day, Panetta agreed that it would hurt the Islamic Republic. The good news then is that the administration is starting to see how the pieces are arrayed on the game board. The bad news is that it’s still wary about taking the other side’s pieces.

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