GOP argues with itself over Syria

Republicans are of two minds on Syria. Some, like Sen. John McCain, favor US military invention. Others, like Sen. Rand Paul, don't see such a US role. Polls show most Americans agree with Mr. Paul.

Razan Shalab AlSham/Syrian Emergency Task Force/REUTERS
US Sen. John McCain meets with Free Syrian Army fighters and Syrian Emergency Task Force Executive Director Mouaz Moustafa (r.) during a surprise visit to Syria May 27.

Republicans are arguing over what the United States should do about Syria – with Democrats, of course, but more significantly with themselves.

Leading the more hawkish wing is Sen. John McCain, who knows something about war firsthand and is not always in line with his party’s deep thinking on the way to confront foreign enemies (see the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation,” otherwise known as torture).

But Senator McCain is just back from Syria, where he met with some of the rebels trying to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a bloody conflict that’s cost tens of thousands of lives. And speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, the Arizona Republican once again called for the US and its allies to send missiles and bombs into the fray.

"We need to give them a no-fly zone," McCain said, speaking of rebel forces. "The Israelis have shown us we can take out their facilities from a distance, that we don't have to risk our pilots. We can crater their runways, we can take out their air assets, we can provide them with a safe zone….”

“We can establish that safe zone," he said, "and I'm confident that we can prevail."

Such thinking does not appeal to the more isolationist, libertarian wing of the GOP – namely Sen. Rand Paul, who (like his father Ron Paul before him) could be a force in the 2016 presidential race.

Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Friday night, Senator Paul took on McCain directly.

“I’m very worried about getting involved in a new war in Syria,” he said. “People say, ‘Assad is such a bad guy.’ He is. But on the other side we have Al Qaeda and now Nusra,” militant groups fighting with the Syrian opposition.

“They say there are some pro-Western people and we’re going to vet them,” Paul continued. “Well, apparently we’ve got a senator over there who got his picture taken with some kidnappers, so I don’t know how good a job we’re going to do vetting those who are going to get the arms.”

As the Washington Times reports, McCain has been under harsh scrutiny since posing for a photo with Syrian rebels who are alleged to have kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shiites.

“There’s two ironies you have to overcome if you want to get involved in a war in Syria,” Paul said. “The first irony is you will be allied with Al Qaeda. The second irony is most of the Christians are on the other side, so you may be arming Islamic rebels who may well be killing Christians. Does that make Assad a good person? No. I don’t think there are any good people in this war, and there are some tragically innocent people who are going to be caught in the middle. But I just don’t know that arming one side is going to make the tragedy any less.”

Though they might not agree with everything he favors, most Americans clearly do support Paul’s hesitancy about any US role in Syria.

A Pew Research Center survey in December found just 27 percent saying that “the US has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria,” with 63 percent saying it does not. Among voting groups, Republicans, at 66 percent, were the most opposed.

“Similarly, just 24 percent favor the US and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, while 65 percent are opposed,” Pew reported.

As Fox News reports Sunday, the Paul-McCain dust-up “underscores a divide in the GOP and intensifies the fight over what the party will represent in 2016 and beyond.”

“Their ideological fight is just one of several among Republicans as members seek to define and reshape the party after losing the last two presidential elections,” notes Fox, including such issues as immigration and how to attract Hispanic voters, 71 percent of whom voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election.

With polls on the side of Democrats, Syria may be just as tough for the party generally more inclined to favor a military solution.

“It’s tragic while we sit by and watch … a battlefield situation where Bashar Assad now has the upper hand,” McCain said on “Face the Nation.”

But sitting and watching, painful as that might be, is where most Americans apparently want to be right now.

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