Traveling across the Turkish border into Syria, 76-year-old Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with former Syrian Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, now leading the U.S.-backed opposition group Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. McCain wants Obama to supply Idris with arms and establish a no fly zone that would cede rebel forces part of Syria, hastening the end to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. McCain was the first and only U.S. senator to meet in Syria with opposition forces. When Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin May 7, they agreed to host a Syrian peace conference, a follow-up of the Geneva commiqué that attempted to resolve the 26-month old conflict, claiming near 80,000 lives since March 11, 2011. McCain’s meeting with Idris undermines painstaking peace talks between the U.S. and Russia..
Russia recognizes the harsh brutality of the al-Assad regime but believes that the Islamic regime to follow would cause more death and destruction in the region. “Important visit with brave fighters [hash] who are risking their lives for freedom and need our help,” tweeted McCain today. “We are peaceful people, we would like to see our country liberated from this dictatorship, liberated from this murder regime, and we would like to have the best relations with all the countries in the world,” Idris told the Associated Press. While there’s nothing President Barack Obama can do to discourage McCain from talking to Syrian rebels, McCain undermines the White House’s attempts at peace with Russia. McCain knows that Russia strongly discourages toppling al-Assad, not only because of his long strategic partnership and Tartus navy base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast but because of expected terrorism.
Russia has a bloody history fighting Islamic radicals in the two-year-long [1994-96] Chechnya War, losing nearly 6,000 troops. Thousands more Russians in Chechnya and Russia have died in terror attacks ever since. Putin and the Kremlin expect more violence and anarchy if al-Assad loses his grip on power. McCain’s Syrian visit corresponded to a European Union ruling that ended the ban June 1 on supplying arms to Syrian rebels. Just as McCain finished visiting Idris, Russia announced that it would supply al-Assad sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems hoping to keep al-Assad in power. “We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, referring perhaps to McCain and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, both supporting Syrian rebels.
Obama finds himself caught between and rock and a hard place, placating U.S. conservatives, on the one hand, and, facing the harsh realities of stepping into another unending Mideast civil war. McCain and his conservative GOP friends don’t like to admit that the battle for Damascus is largely as Saudi-funded Wahhabi war against al-Assad’s minority Shiite government. When Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia threw its backing to al-Assad May 25, it complicated U.S. foreign policy. While Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah battled Israel to a Mexican standoff in 2006, he’s a fervent backer of the al-Assad government. Hezbollah’s support of Syria relates to its shared Shiite roots and hatred of Israel. Al-Assad is not fan of Israel after it annexed the Golan Heights after the 1967 Six Day War. Syria has exploited Hezbollah to fight a proxy war against Israel to regain its territory.
McCain’s trip to Syria puts pressure on Obama to pony up more cash and arms to Syrian rebels, despite objections from Russia, China and others not knowing the composition of Syrian rebel forces. While aligned at the moment to rid Syria of al-Assad, the U.S. and U.K. don’t know the kind of reciprocation demanded by Sunni Islamist groups—including radical Palestinians—for fighting to topple al-Assad. Whether or not McCain talks with more moderate rebels like Idris, there’s no guarantee that if they succeed in deposing al-Assad that a post-revolutionary government would wind up like the Taliban. Recent cross border clashes between Hezbollah guerillas fighting to save al-Assad and Brig. Gen. Salim Idris shows that the free-for-all battle between Sunnis and Shiites dominates the political landscape in the 26-month old Syrian civil war.
McCain’s incursion into the Syrian conflict panders to conservatives looking to score political points against Obama. Meeting with Idris offers no insights into what a post-al-Assad Syria would look like. If the U.S., U.K. or its EU allies supply arms or cash to Syrian rebels, there’s a good chance al-Qaeda—or some other radical Wahhabi group—will wind up with sophisticated arms. “We will chase them all the way to hell if a decision is not taken to stop Hezbollah’s attack on Syrian land,” Idris told Al-Arabia TV. It’s ironic how McCain said he would chase Bin Laden “to the gates of hell” if elected commander-in-chief during the 2008 campaign. Instead of meddling in Obama’s foreign policy, McCain should defer to voters—and the president’s judgment—to keep the U.S. out of another Mideast war. Antagonizing Russia or China does nothing to advance Syria’s peace process.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.