Syria: Will the U.S. Be Blamed for Failure to Act?
Policy + Politics

Syria: Will the U.S. Be Blamed for Failure to Act?

REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The death toll in Syria is now over 140,000.  The number of refugees is over 2.3 million. 

Last September, Sen. John McCain broke with his Republican colleagues on Syria, encouraging the Obama administration to strike militarily after evidence was confirmed of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This was the so-called red line set by President Obama. 

“If he launched an attack on Syria without the endorsement of Congress, it would be vastly more complicated if Congress had already acted. If he acted without the agreement of Congress, you could make the argument before the resolution was passed... that he is acting as other presidents have,” McCain said at the time.

Related: Assad Thumbs His Nose at Deal to Remove Chemical Weapons

McCain also said that Obama should strike despite intervention in Syria being unpopular with the American public, and threats from within Congress to impeach him if he did so.

“They're not going to impeach the president," said McCain. "They're not that crazy."

McCain warned that the deal being developed at the time by Russia -- the United States would not intervene if Assad destroyed his chemical weapons -- was unreliable. He also argued that even if Assad did give up his chemical weapons, it would do little to stop the bloodshed that had killed 100,000 people at that point.

McCain stood nearly alone among his Republican colleagues, who were against intervention. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said repeatedly that the United States has ““no interests” in Syria. Chris Gibson (R-NY) echoed, “It is my judgment that military intervention would make it worse and make us responsible for that conflict.” Rep. Michele Bachmann said that the war was a result of Obama’s bad foreign policy.

Related: Syria's 'Surrender' Ends Bizarre White House Scheme

Republicans weren’t alone. Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who made her name by condemning U.S. inaction during the Rwandan genocide, said that the military should not intervene.

“President Obama has put in play every single tool in the toolbox, short of military action,” she said in November. “It is the most heartbreaking circumstance confronting us today…. I’d be careful about suggesting we are not taking the atrocities seriously. This is something the president gets briefed on every day. He’s always asking what we can do.”

Unfortunately for Syrians, McCain was right. Here’s what’s happened since McCain pushed for a strike to eliminate Assad:

  • Assad has refused to give up his chemical weapons.
  • 30,000 more people have died.
  • Women and chidden continue to be targeted by Syrian troops.
  • Reports of torture, executions and false imprisonment emerge each day.
  • The rebels fighting Assad have fractured, making it less likely that they’ll be able to unseat the president.
  • The conflict has emboldened Russia, who came up with the plan to destroy chemical weapons in exchange for American inaction.

Related: The Coming Bloodbath in Syria

Now, there are reports that peace talks between the rebels and Syria have fallen completely apart.

“The regime stonewalled. They did nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country. And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia,” Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday while traveling in Asia.

McCain Renews Push
As negotiations have deteriorated over the last two weeks, McCain has again begun to push for increased action to stop Assad. It began last Wednesday, when he said that the future president would be forced to apologize for the United States’ failure to act more forcefully.

"Where is the recognition that 'the cold logic of mass graves' is right there in front of us, in Syria today? And yet our government is doing what we have sadly done too often in the past. We are averting our eyes,” McCain said on the floor of the Senate, standing next to large pictures of dead bodies.

He continued his push over the weekend.

“The second round of Syria peace talks ended today with no progress toward a negotiated political settlement to the conflict and UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recognizing that failure is looming,” McCain said Saturday. “After three weeks of talks, we are moving further and further away from a peaceful political solution.”

Related: Syria on Track to Miss Deadline to Destroy Chemical Weapons

McCain continued on the Sunday shows, arguing the president needs to explore options that “change the balance of power on the ground” that fall short of an invasion.

“We have options.  The question is whether we will use them or not.  After 8,000 people were ethnically cleansed at Srebrenica, Bill Clinton acted.  None of us want boots on the ground, but to not revisit other options, which are viable, then I think it is the only thing that we can do,” McCain said Sunday. “This is shameful.  This is shameful what’s going on.”

McCain then asked, “Isn’t it a terrible idea to do nothing?”

White House - and Samantha Power - Unmoved
The White House refused to consider McCain’s suggestions. Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “I am not sure what exactly he is advocating. Is he advocating a U.S. invasion of Syria? I do not know. Is he advocating a bombing campaign?”

But the real mystery within the administration is Samantha Power. Power made her name in a Pulitzer-Prize winning book condemning the United States for failing to stop mass killings around the world. Her central theme was that American policymakers choose to allow genocide to occur because they lack the political will to stop it, and that there are options short of military action to end genocide.

Power has been oddly demure on Syria, calling for an end to the violence but not advocating additional steps beyond peace talks to stop it. Human rights lawyer Rebecca Hamilton argues that Syria is challenging Power’s central thesis.

"Unfortunately, Syria is the case that shows the problem with her original thesis," Hamilton said in a recent interview. "I think she was too quick to dismiss this question of influence, too focused on America at the cost of other players in the global system.”

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