WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain on Sunday characterized the lack of U.S. aid to Syrian rebels as "shameful" and said helping their cause would deal "the greatest blow to Iran in the Middle East in 25 years."
McCain's remarks sought to maintain political pressure on President Barack Obama as violence in the region escalated, forcing a 300-strong U.N. observer mission to call off its patrols. Syrian troops on Sunday intensified shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods in central Homs, according to activists who say humanitarian conditions are growing worse and are pressing for the evacuation of 1,000 endangered families and dozens of wounded people who can't get adequate medical care.
"The fact that the United States of America is not helping these people – and we can – is shameful," McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
So far, the U.S. has refused to arm Syrian rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight with Iran and Russia, which both back the Syrian government.
The crisis is likely to come up Monday when President Barack Obama sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico on the sidelines of meetings between leading rich and developing nations. The U.S. recently accused Russia of equipping the Syrian government with attack helicopters that could be used against civilians, only to later acknowledge that the helicopters were already owned by Syria and being sent back to Russia for repairs.
McCain said the Syrian rebels were facing an "unfair fight now" and reiterated the claim that "Russian shipments are coming in."
The White House called for Assad's ouster when it blamed the Syrian government for the deaths in May of more than 100 people, including 49 children, following peaceful protests. National Security Council spokeswoman Erin Pelton said the attack serves as a "vile testament to an illegitimate regime." The Syrian government denied responsibility.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee and 2008 GOP presidential nominee, has long advocated for U.S. military support of Syrian rebels, including airstrikes against the regime's forces. In Congress, only McCain's closest Senate colleagues have echoed his plea for military aid with most lawmakers reluctant to drag the U.S. into another conflict.