WASHINGTON — US Senator John McCain told AFP Wednesday that the Syrian president's "massacres of his own people" are putting pressure on European and US leaders to take more active roles in ending the crisis.
And while he charged that President Barack Obama "is not leading" to help Syria's rebels and stop atrocities committed by regime forces, the Arizona Republican admitted there was significant resistance in Congress to action such as airstrikes, which McCain advocates.
"An unfair fight is going on. With tanks and artillery, Bashar al-Assad is going around city to city and committing massacres of his own people," McCain said in an interview.
"They deserve our assistance and international assistance to fight back."
In recent weeks, McCain has grown into the most vocal Senate proponent of assistance such as weapons and airstrikes to the rebels fighting to oust Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades, and suggested there should be broader European engagement.
The senior Republican on the Armed Service Committee said he has seen "some" support of his position in Europe, but pressed for more.
"I understand that there's a huge financial crisis in Europe, there's an election coming up in France. But every day that these pictures (of violence in Syria) come out, the stories and the atrocities are working to arouse public opinion," he said.
"The average citizen is outraged by what we see Bashar al-Assad doing to his own people. So I believe there will be more and more pressure on the leadership both in Europe and the United States to act, again collectively," he added.
"For us to stand by and watch atrocities such as that are taking palace in Syria, we should be ashamed as a nation that has stood up for people who struggle for freedom and democracy, and the president of the United States is not leading."
While Obama has made several critical statements about the Syrian regime and called for Assad to relinquish power, McCain said the onus was on the US president to take a tougher stand.
"All we've heard from the president of the United States is 'it's inevitable that Assad will fall.' When?" he asked. "How many more have to die before the United States acts with our allies?"
It was McCain who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, and his frustration with the president on his Middle East policy was clear.
"He hasn't spoken out in favor of the Syrian people, he hasn't expressed outrage at these massacres that are taking place," said McCain. "The president's greatest strength is the bully pulpit, and this president clearly is not using it, either on Afghanistan or Syria."
Aside from Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, few US lawmakers have publicly fallen into line with McCain's position.
"There's many of them who do not support it. Because of our economy and other reasons, there's a very strong isolationist strain in the Congress," he acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement calling on the Syrian regime and the opposition to "work in good faith" toward a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
McCain said the rebels were facing a well-armed regime -- fortified, critics say, by weapons from Iran and Russia -- and framed the clashes as "AK-47s and RPGs against tanks and artillery."
He envisioned "no ground troops" from outside nations going into Syria, but called for the kind of air power deployed in Libya, where Western assets targeted Moamer Kadhafi's forces from the skies.
"With the precision weapons that we have today, we could prevent Assad from overrunning some of the areas that the freedom fighters have been able to take control of," McCain said.
"It's not easy, it's different from Libya," he added. "But the American taxpayer pays $700 million a year... on defense. If we can't handle Syria, then we've had a horrible waste of US tax dollars."
One of the most senior supporters of Mitt Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, McCain said that while his candidate was "aligned" with him on Middle East policy, he has not taken a direct stance on air strikes.
"We are alike in principles, but I haven't pushed him on this issue," McCain said.
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