Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) emerged from an Oval Office meeting with President Obama on Monday saying the consequences of not taking action against the Assad regime in Syria could be “catastrophic.”
McCain told reporters gathered outside the White House that they had “a very good and productive discussion with the president about the issue of Syria and the use of chemical weapons.”
“We emphasized to the president that now it’s been over a year since the president said it would be a game changer if chemical weapons were used,” he added. “It’s been two years since the president said Bashar al-Assad must leave. And we emphasized the importance we place to actions that would degrade Bashar Assad’s capabilities, upgrade the opposition, and to see the change to momentum on the ground in order that the Free Syrian Army can prevail over time.”
“Both Senator Graham and I are in agreement that now that a resolution is going to be before the Congress of the United States, we want to work to make that resolution something that the majority of members of both houses can support,” McCain continued. “A rejection of that, a vote against that resolution by Congress, I think would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that.”
Graham suggested to Obama that he “give the opposition a chance to speak directly to the American people.”
“John and I and the president all believe that Syrians by nature are not al-Qaeda sympathizers. They’re not trying to replace one dictator, Assad, who has been brutal, his whole family has been brutal for generations, to only have al-Qaeda run Syria. That makes no sense. But it’s time for the Syrian opposition to step forward. I want a statement from the Syrian opposition that if we get in charge of Syria with your help, we’re going to renounce chemical weapons,” he said.
Assad was a key facilitator of al-Qaeda in Iraq and evidence suggests that relationship has continued even as al-Qaeda purports to be on the side of the rebels.
Graham noted “Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, a lot of the Gulf Arab states have been helping quietly; now is the time to get out front and be more overt.”
“And it weighs on the president’s mind strongly about the signals we send. So if we lost a vote in the Congress dealing with the chemical weapons being used in Syria, what effect would that have on Iran in terms of their nuclear program?”
McCain said the administration is going to have to “work very hard” to sell Congress on the use-of-force authorization.
“We have gone for two-and-a-half years without helping these people. Obviously, people are weary after Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans have to be assured that no plan will entail American boots on the ground. And we totally are in agreement with that. So, they have a selling job to do. But at the same time, I believe that if we can formulate this strategy that I just articulated, degrading his — Bashar Assad’s capability, upgrading the resistance in the long term, then I think that we have a chance of succeeding in the vote,” the senator said.
Graham added that “the president really has no one to blame in many ways but himself about the lack of public understanding of what’s at stake in Syria.”
“And we talk about the past, the present and the future. Two years ago, we had an opportunity to get Assad out when there were dozens of al Qaeda only in Syria. Now there’s thousands. A year from now, there are going to be tens of thousands. Two years ago, there were not 600,000 refugees in Jordan compromising the king of Jordan. Time is not on our side. So we urge the president to up his game and inform the American people, what does it mean if Assad wins and the opposition loses?” he continued.
“Syria is a cancer that’s growing in the region. And for two years, the president has allowed this to become, quite frankly, a debacle. And when it comes to selling the American people what we should do in Syria, given the indifference and quite frankly contradictions, it is going to be a tough sell. But it is not too late. So, Mr. President, clear the air. Be decisive. Be firm about why it matters to us as a nation to get Syria right.”
“And a weak response is almost as bad as doing nothing,” McCain chimed in.
Graham and McCain both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has convened a closed-door hearing tomorrow to hear from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Syria.
“This is pretty bizarre to give the enemy weeks to reconfigure their force,” said Graham. “But we are where we are.”