John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have already called for arming Syria’s rebels, in statements last month from the US Senate where they serve. But they repeated their demand in more dramatic fashion Tuesday – from a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and with violence unabated, as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad disregarded the UN plan that was to have silenced the Syrian Army’s guns Tuesday morning.
The two senators joined a growing international chorus of voices finding that the unimplemented plan, brokered by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is simply allowing the Assad regime to continue its oppression.
Saying there is “no end in sight” to the mayhem that Mr. Assad is raining down on his people, Senators McCain and Lieberman said it is time for the international community to help the Syrian opposition fighters “change the balance of power on the ground” by arming them and helping them establish havens where they can “organize themselves.”
Speaking from Hatay Province in Turkey, near the Turkish-Syrian border, the two said their visit had reinforced their conviction that Syria is already in an uneven war – one pitting the Assad regime and its “foreign backers” against the “Syrian people” who are in a fight for “liberation.”
“Unless the international community is equally committed to supporting the Syrian people and thwarting Assad, including by military means, the killing will go on,” they said, “and there will be no hope to a diplomatic end to the conflict.”
The two senators said they appreciate the efforts of Mr. Annan to broker a plan. But the evidence of continuing daily death tolls and even more brazen violence at the hands of Assad’s forces is proof that “diplomacy with Assad has failed,” they said.
Annan, also in Turkey, was not ready to concede the failure of his plan, but he did express disappointment in the continuing violence. “I had hoped that by now we would have been much further ahead,” he told reporters, adding that it was past time for the military to “go back to their barracks.”
Under Annan’s plan, which the former UN chief negotiated with Assad and which the UN Security Council endorsed last week, government forces were to have begun observing a cease-fire and to have pulled back from cities and towns by Tuesday. Opposition forces were to cease all fighting by Thursday. Still to be determined is when international observers will be dispatched to observe the two sides’ compliance with the plan.
The Security Council took up the faltering plan Tuesday afternoon, considering a letter in which Annan reported on implementation of his plan and in particular on the Assad regime’s failure to honor the commitments it made to cease violent actions by Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters after the Council meeting, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said that Annan, while expressing disappointment, still saw an opportunity for both parties to honor the full cessation of hostilities that they have committed to reaching by Thursday.
Annan is to report to the Council again on Thursday, Ambassador Rice said. She also took the opportunity to warn the Assad regime that the next two days may be its last chance to avoid heightened pressure from the international community.
The United States finds it “outrageous, but by no means unexpected” that Assad would break commitments he made just last week, Rice said. “The logical next step” in the face of continued noncompliance would be “to increase the pressure on the Assad regime through collective action,” she said, but she didn't specify what that action might be.
Earlier, the White House had said it expected the Council to consider ramping up pressure on Assad if Annan reported that the regime is flouting his plan.
“We would certainly hope the UN Security Council would evaluate the situation in Syria if in fact Mr. Annan finds that the Assad regime has not abided by its own commitments to begin withdrawal by today,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
At a meeting last week of the international group known as the Friends of Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US was ready to begin providing Syrian rebels with nonlethal supplies, such as communications equipment.
But US officials say America is not ready to expand that to supplying arms for several key reasons, including concerns about who the Syrian rebels are and who has influence with them.
McCain and Lieberman acknowledged those concerns in their statement, saying they were aware of reports that the rebels have contacts with a growing Al Qaeda presence in Syria, for example. But, they said, such links will grow only stronger if the rest of the world stands aside.
“If responsible nations abandon the people of Syria,” they said, “we should not be surprised if they increasingly turn to violent extremists for help.”