Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today delivered the following statement on the floor of the U.S. Senate urging U.S. action on Syria. Watch Senator McCain's floor speech here.
“Mr. President, last February I came to the floor to appeal to the conscience of my colleagues and fellow citizens about the mass atrocities that the Assad regime is perpetuating in Syria. I brought with me a series of gruesome images that documented the horrors the Assad regime has committed against political prisoners in its jails across the country. Those images were smuggled out of the country by Caesar, a Syrian military policeman who risked his life and the lives of his family and friends to show the world the real face of human suffering in Syria today. At the time, I had hoped that those images would cry out to our national conscience and compel our great nation to help end the suffering and genocide of the Syrian people. How could anyone look at those pictures and not press for immediate accountability and an end to these mass atrocities?
“In the months since those images were first made public, US and European investigators have poured over the images and concluded that not only are these images genuine, but they are evidence of an industrial-scale campaign by the Assad regime against its political opponents. According to the State Department, these photographs are evidence of systematic atrocities not seen since Hitler’s Nazi regime exterminated millions during World War II. Stephen Rapp, the State Department’s ambassador at large for War Crimes, stated that: ‘This is solid evidence of the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis. It’s shocking to me.’ U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, after a briefing to U.N. Security Council members, stated: ‘The gruesome images of corpses bearing marks of starvation, strangulation and beatings and today’s chilling briefing indicate that the Assad regime has carried out systematic, widespread, and industrial killing.’
“Despite the statements from these and other senior officials, the Administration has yet to finish its investigation. Perhaps when the Administration does complete its forensic analysis of the evidence provided by Caesar President Obama will decide that it is finally time to take action in Syria and prevent the continuation of mass atrocities that according to his Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities is ‘a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’ I am not hopeful.
“In the time that the investigation to prove what we all know to be true has been underway, approximately 40,000 more people have died, another one million people have been forced from their homes, and over half of Syria’s population is now believed to be in dire need of food, water, and medicine. The Assad regime continues to bomb northern Syria using crude cluster munitions known as ‘barrel bombs’ with the sole purpose of terrorizing and killing as many people as possible when indiscriminately dropped from Syrian government aircraft on schools, bakeries, and mosques. It continues to raze entire neighborhoods for no military purpose whatsoever, simply as a form of collective punishment of Syrian civilians. It continues its ‘surrender or starve’ famine campaign, starving people to death by denying entire neighborhoods any access to food or water. And just last month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has been tasked with destroying Syria’s chemical stockpiles, announced that there is credible evidence that toxic chemicals are still being used in a ‘systematic manner’ in Syria.
“Indeed, this kind of inhuman cruelty is a pattern of behavior with the Syrian government. As early as August 2011, a damning 22-page report was issued by the United Nations human rights office which concluded that Syrian government forces had committed crimes against humanity by carrying out summary executions, torturing prisoners and harming children – the evidence of which we now see clearly in these images.
“This report prompted President Obama to issue a statement calling for President Assad to step down. The president declared, ‘We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.’ He ended this statement by saying, ‘It is clear that President Assad believes that he can silence the voices of his people by resorting to the repressive tactics of the past. But he is wrong.’
“Following the President’s statement, there was no shortage of Administration officials publically professing that President Assad’s days were numbered:
“In December 2012, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a NATO gathering that Assad’s fall was ‘inevitable.’ She later repeated, ‘It is time for Assad to get out of the way.’
“That same month, White House Spokesman Jay Carney echoed Clinton’s proclamation, stating, ‘Assad’s fall is inevitable. As governments make decisions about where they stand on this issue and what steps need to be taken with regards to brutality of Assad’s regime, it’s important to calculate into your consideration the fact that he will go. The regime has lost control of the country and he will eventually fall.’
“In May 2012, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey told Fox News that ‘escalating atrocities’ would likely trigger a military intervention following a massacre that left more than 100 dead – that was back when we were talking about Syria’s dead in hundreds rather than thousands and tens of thousands.
“A month later in June 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Panetta, stated, ‘I think it’s important when Assad leaves – and he will leave – to try to preserve stability in that country… I’m sure that deep down Assad knows he’s in trouble, and it’s just a matter of time before he has to go. I would say if you [Assad] want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you better get the hell out now.’
“But where are we now? Three years after President Obama and his Administration rightly decided it was time for him to go, President Assad remains in power. I remember when an American president said that a foreign leader must go, it conveyed a commitment to doing something about it. But instead of taking decisive action in support of the President’s declared policy, the Administration has simply moved away from calls for Assad to step down over the past year.
“In fact, instead of being forced to step down, Assad has continuously gotten the Administration to treat his regime as a central interlocutor, first with the chemical weapons agreement through which Assad forced the U.S. into acknowledging his legitimacy and ensuring that he would remain in place until the agreement was carried out, then by serving as the sole authority on distribution of aid within the country, and now by presenting himself as critical to the fight against terrorism and the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“So as it turns out, President Obama was right that Assad’s violence and repressive tactics could not silence the voices of the Syrian people who, even in the worst imaginable conditions, have continued their fight for freedom and a democratic Syria. Instead, it has been the voice of President Obama and other Administration officials that President Assad has managed to silence.
“We cannot be silent, but we cannot allow words to replace action either. What has become exceedingly clear in the wake of recent events is that, even if we can ignore the moral imperative to act, the growing threat to American national security interests means that doing nothing is now out of the question.
“The conflict in Syria is largely to blame for the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has grown into the even more dangerous and lethal Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, commonly referred to by the acronym ISIS or ISIL. Top officials testified in last week’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing that ISIS represents a threat that is ‘worse than Al-Qaeda.’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, Brett McGurk, stated that ISIS is no longer simply a terrorist organization, but ‘a full blow army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.’
“The Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Attorney General have all warned repeatedly about the threat posed by ISIS’s state-like sanctuary in Syria and Iraq, and the largest safe haven for global terrorism in the world. If the September 11 attacks should have taught us anything, it is that global terrorists who occupy ungoverned spaces and seek to plot and plan attacks against us can pose a direct threat to our national security. That was Afghanistan on September 10, 2001. And that is what these top officials are now warning us that Syria is becoming today.
“Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has said, ‘Syria is now a matter of homeland security’ and FBI Director James Comey recently warned Congress that the terrorist threat from Syria against the United States is ‘metastasizing.’
“Their assessments were confirmed earlier this month by Attorney General Eric Holder who said that recent intelligence reports of terrorist from Syria partnering with Yemeni bomb makers are ‘more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general. It’s something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern.’ He added that, ‘If they [ISIS] are able to consolidate their gains in that area, Iraq and Syria, I think it's just a matter of time before they start looking outward and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular. So this is something that we have to get on top of and get on top of now.’
“It is clear that President Assad’s strategy is to convince the Administration that we only have two options: him or al-Qaeda linked terrorists. It is a sad testament to the Administration’s leadership on Syria that Assad’s strategy seems to be working. According to a report by the Daily Beast, Administration officials are debating whether to abandon the President’s goal of toppling Assad and enter into a de facto alliance with the Assad regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.
“Such a decision would represent the height of folly. Nobody should believe that Assad is an ally in the fight against terrorism. Former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who resigned in May after asserting that he could no longer defend American policy in Syria, made it clear how foolish such thinking is. He stated, ‘The people who think Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the answer to containing and eventually eliminating the Islamic –based threat do not understand the historic relationship between the regime and ISIS. They don’t understand the current relationship between Assad and ISIS and how they are working on the ground together directly and indirectly inside Syria.’ He added that, ‘If this administration wants to contain the Islamic State on the ground, they’re going to help the FSA.’
“After more than three years of horror, and suffering, and devastation, and growing threats to our national security, the conflict in Syria continues to get worse and worse, both for Syria and for the world, but the United States has no effective policy to help bring this conflict to a responsible end. The outcome of the Administration’s disengagement has been a consistent failure to support more responsible forces in Syria when that support would have mattered, the descent of Syria into chaos and growing regional instability, the use of Syria as a training ground for al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist organizations, the ceding of regional leadership to our adversaries, and the shameful tolerance of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In short, all of the horrible things that the critics said would happen if we got more involved in Syria have happened because we have not gotten more involved.
“Now President Obama finds himself in a position where the United States will have to do far more today to stave off disaster in Syria than we would have needed to do in 2012. The Administration seems to have finally come around to the idea that we must arm, train, and equip the moderate opposition in Syria. But arming moderate FSA units is only one element of what must be a much broader strategy that includes both Syria and Iraq. I will be the first to admit that there are no good options left, if good options ever existed to begin with. But as bad as our options are, we still have options to do something meaningful in Syria.
“The conflict in Syria is reaching a critical point. Government forces are advancing on Aleppo, effectively cutting off routes into and out of the city from the south and west and exercising a stranglehold on the people of Aleppo. More than six months of punishing daily airstrikes have killed thousands of residents and forced tens of thousands more to flee. But at least 500,000 residents remain, and they are being slowly asphyxiated by Assad’s forces as they brace for Aleppo’s upcoming siege. Meanwhile disillusioned fighters, starved of the resources and equipment they need, have been drifting from the front lines and in some cases joining the better-funded and equipped extremists groups.
“It is a moral outrage to watch the destruction of what remains of Aleppo and refuse to do more to help those fight against our enemies in the region. Worse still, the government’s campaign has been aided and abetted by ISIS, which is attacking the FSA from the north-east in an attempt to take control of two vital supply lines from Turkey and forcing the moderate opposition to fight simultaneously on two fronts. Some activists are suggesting that the fall of Aleppo could be the nail in the coffin for the moderate opposition, and the situation for civilians still living in Aleppo has become so disastrous that the United Nations recently authorized the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid without prior approval from the Assad regime. These efforts are a band-aid on a bullet wound. It will not be enough to mitigate the increasingly dire crisis unfolding in the city and we must offer quick support to the moderate opposition as they battle both the Assad regime and extremists from the Islamic state before it is too late.
“The rise of ISIS combined with events in Gaza and Ukraine have placed Assad’s assault on Aleppo safely outside of the headlines. With the international community distracted by these disturbing events in other parts of the world, President Assad will again manipulate time and terror in his favor. President Obama, who spent much of his time in recent weeks at fundraising events, said nothing about Syria or Iraq during recent appearances to discuss Gaza and Ukraine. Worse still, details of the sole initiative proposed by the Administration on Syria since the collapse of the Geneva peace talks reveal a plan that would train less than a battalion sized unit of 2,300 individuals and wouldn’t begin until the middle of next year. By that time, Aleppo may be lost and there may be no more units left in Syria to support.
“The conflict in Syria is a threat to our national interests, but it is more than that. It is an affront to our conscience. Images like these should not just be a source of heartbreak and sympathy. They should be a call to action. For the sake of our national security, we must move quickly to help the moderate opposition now before it is too late. And for the sake of our national conscience, we must do more to help the 150,000 political prisoners who remain in Assad’s prisons and put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.
“It is with great sadness that I met with Caesar yesterday and had to tell him the truth: that although our great nation could have done more to stop the suffering of others, that we could have used the power we possess, limited and imperfect as it may be, to prevent mass atrocities and the killing of innocents, it is with everlasting shame that we have not.
“Shame on all of us for our current failure. If ever there was a case that should remind us that our interests are indivisible from our values, it is Syria, and we cannot afford to go numb to this human tragedy. I have seen my fair share of suffering and death in the world, but the images and stories coming out of Syria haunt me most.
“But it is not too late. The United States is still the most powerful nation in the world today, and we have the power and capabilities to act when brutal tyrants slaughter their people with impunity. No one should believe that we are without options, even now. I pray that we will finally recognize the costs of inaction and take the necessary actions to end Assad’s mass atrocities and help the Syrian people write a better ending to this sad chapter in world affairs.”