February 20, 2012 7:21 pm

McCain calls for US to support Syria rebels

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An influential US senator on a trip through the Middle East called on Washington to take a strong stance in support of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, by providing logistical support to the armed rebels fighting him.

Though John McCain, the Republican senator, did not say the US should arm the rebel Free Syrian Army, he advocated providing them with medical help, intelligence and ways of getting weapons, hinting that other countries could help.

“The massacre in Syria goes on. Thousands have already been killed. I don’t know how many thousands have already been wounded,” Mr McCain, leading a delegation of five members of the upper US legislative chamber, told reporters on Monday.

“There are ways to get assistance ranging from medical assistance to technical assistance, such as GPS and other things we could provide,” he said. “There are ways to get weapons into Syria. It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.”

He added: “I am not calling for direct supply of weapons by the United States of America. We have seen in Libya, and we have seen in previous conflicts, that there are ways to get weapons so they can defend themselves.”

Qatar and France provided Libyan rebels with weapons to help overthrow the late Libyan leader Col Muammer Gaddafi.

Mr McCain and the others, including Lindsey Graham, the prominent South Carolina senator, were on a scheduled visit to Cairo intended to boost political and business ties after the revolution that toppled long-time President Hosni Mubarak last year.

But their efforts to generate goodwill were overshadowed by the fate of 43 employees of mostly US democracy-promotion organisations now facing trial on charges of undermining the state.

The senators revealed that they had received assurances about the fate of the NGO workers from both Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling military council, and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party dominates the newly elected parliament. They disclosed that the Brotherhood had revealed it planned to revise the NGO laws as early as this spring, and was committed to upholding pluralism, democracy and free markets.

“I was very apprehensive when I heard the election results,” Sen Graham said. “But after visiting and talking to the Muslim Brotherhood, I am hopeful that they will be able to deliver not only for the Egyptian people, but that we can have a relationship with Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood as a strong political voice.”

The bloodshed in Syria has also eclipsed worries about Egypt’s fate.

Western and Arab foreign ministers will gather in Tunis on Friday to discuss ways to stop Mr Assad’s violent crackdown, which has cost thousands of lives.

Mr McCain, who ran against President Barack Obama in 2008 elections, called on the US chief executive to take a bold stance to support the uprising. “It is the duty, not the privilege, of nations in the world to come to the assistance of people who are being massacred,” he said. “The president of the United States should be standing up and speaking on behalf of the people of Syria who are being massacred. That will matter to them. Because when the leader of the free world speaks, it matters.”

He acknowledged “legitimate concern” regarding the possibility that Islamist militants were infiltrating the Syrian uprising, but said he would be willing to “bet on the forces of freedom and democracy being able to repel and eliminate the forces of al-Qaeda”.

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