CERNOBBIO, Italy — U.S. Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham on Friday urged Washington to help arm Syria's rebels with weapons and create a safe zone inside the country for a transition government. They also called for a far tougher position against Iran over its suspected – and seemingly inexorable – drive toward acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
McCain blasted President Barack Obama, who defeated him in the 2008 presidential election, for recently setting the "red line" for Syria at use of chemical weapons.
"If you're (Syrian President) Bashar Assad ... maybe you interpret that to mean that you can do anything short of chemical weapons before the United States will intervene," the Republican from Arizona told the Ambrosetti Forum, a gathering of political and business leaders on the shores of Lake Como in Italy.
Lieberman and McCain – who together with Graham have toured the volatile Middle East in recent days – both argued that the longer the West waits the more jihadists will gain influence in the rebellion.
"We should be supplying weapons to the opposition to Assad (and) I strongly support the creation of a safe zone," said Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, who has since become a Connecticut independent.
"The opposition has effectively seized control of a piece of land in northern Syria," he said. "If we help them protect themselves from Assad's helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft they can establish a transitional government ... I am confident that if we set it up and told (the regime) that if they attacked it there would be a vigorous response, they would not attack it."
He said such a zone would enable potential future leaders now located in places like Istanbul and Paris to establish a presence among the people.
Recent Turkish efforts to push for just such action ran aground at the United Nations, due both to Russian and Chinese opposition as well as lack of enthusiasm in many Western countries for more direct involvement in Mideast tumult, especially after the less-than-stellar outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, agreed that people in the West are war-weary, but argued that if Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney "would speak out more forcefully about the consequences of doing nothing compared to the consequences of taking a calculated risk, public opinion would change."
"It is better to shape history than to see it pass by," he said.
Lieberman spoke of the human toll.
"There is a slaughter going on," he said of the Syria conflict, whose death toll has reached about 25,000. "Everything that motivated all of us to get involved in Libya is happening in Syria, and more."
He noted that "Assad is the number one ally in the Arab world of Iran, and Iran is that greatest threat to stability in the region and beyond the region at this point."
And on Iran, the three were united in a belief that economic sanctions will not cause Tehran to end its nuclear drive.
McCain argued that with the notable exception of the case of Apartheid South Africa, "sanctions, when we look at history, rarely work" – and in the case of Iran that's exacerbated by a sense that the nuclear program has the people's support.
"We have applied very tough economic sanctions on Iran and they have clearly affected the economy of Iran – but they have not affected the nuclear program one iota," marveled Lieberman. "By its recalcitrance Iran is presenting the rest of the world with only two choices: Do we accept a nuclear Iran and try to contain it – or do we take military action? That's a fateful decision that's got to be made in the months ahead."
Lieberman noted that the UN nuclear agency has shown "evidence that the Iranians are rushing toward having the capability to develop nuclear weapons (that) would be a total change of the balance of power in the Middle East and more broadly in the world," since Iran is a patron of terrorist groups. Lieberman said the "red line" should be the acquisition of capability as opposed to the actual construction of a nuclear weapon.
Graham said he did not expect Israel – whose leaders have been saber-rattling all year in what many suspect is a bluff aimed at sparking tougher Western action – to forever remain inactive.
But he argued that the U.S. should be the one making military threats.
"If the Iranians believed that there's a credible threat of a massive attack by the United States to disrupt their nuclear program and their regime's survivability, they will start thinking differently."
"I believe (Iranian leaders) feel that a nuclear weapon gives them complete immunity forever because the international community will leave them alone if they get that weapon," he said. "The one thing I know they cannot possibly believe is that they can survive a conflict with the United States."
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Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>
Free Syrian Army
The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
Syrian National Council
Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>
The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>
The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>
Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>