Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and the Obama administration are sparring anew over Syria, trading barbs over whether the U.S. should get further involved in the bloody conflict there.
The Arizona Republican penned an op-ed published late Tuesday charging the administration with having “no strategy” to stop the bombing of civilians there. Hours later, the White House accused him of advocating a war with the Assad regime that could drag America into another costly Middle East ground campaign.
“While the U.S.-led coalition is making progress in the fight against Islamic State, we cannot forget this terrorist organization is a symptom of the Syrian civil war,” McCain wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The future of that conflict will have significant strategic impact on U.S. national security.
“This is where the conflict in Syria is headed, and the administration still has no strategy to do anything about it. Its diplomacy is toothless. And there appears to be no Plan B,” Obama’s 2008 general election foe wrote.
Asked Wednesday about the chairman’s critique, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest shot back: “Sen. McCain advocated in that op-ed for going to war with Syria, for increasing our military commitment, and for sending U.S. military forces to Syria.”
“That’s not the advice that the commander in chief is receiving from our military leadership at the Department of Defense,” Obama’s top spokesman said, adding McCain’s proposed Syria strategy also would be the opposite of what “the president has received from the intelligence community.”
Obama and his top aides long have drawn a straight line from his unwillingness to plunge thousands — or hundreds of thousands — of American troops into Syria to oust Assad to the U.S.-led mission that drove Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad.
“It would be expensive, it would put at risk more American lives, and it’s unclear how a conflict like that would end,” Earnest said. “This is a lesson that leaders in both parties should have learned after the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
On Monday, after a hospital and other civilian sites were bombed in recent days, the Obama administration cut off talks with Moscow, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s few remaining allies, about how to end the fighting there.
“There is nothing left to talk about,” Earnest said on Monday, signaling an end to the administration’s attempt to coordinate actions there with Moscow.
On Wednesday, he went further, accusing the Assad regime of “intentionally” trying to bomb civilians into submission. And he charged Russia with “aiding and abetting” Assad.
As tensions between Washington and Moscow reach new highs, aides say Obama is considering possible sanctions and other steps against Russia to punish it for its actions in Syria. But it’s clear that it would be up to the next commander in chief to increase the American military’s role.
“Are you suggesting we should divert our attention from [the Islamic State] and al-Qaida to start another war with the Assad regime in Syria?” Earnest asked rhetorically. “That doesn’t seem like it makes a lot of sense.”
Both GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic foe, Hillary Clinton, as well as their running mates, have proposed a larger U.S. military operation there. His is more hawkish than her’s, however.
On Capitol Hill, many Republicans — and some Democrats — long have advocated for a more robust military mission than the air strikes and U.S. special operations advisers Obama has sent to help opposition fighters.
“Any alternative approach must begin with grounding Mr. Assad’s air power,” McCain wrote. “It is a strategic advantage that enables the Assad regime to perpetuate the conflict through the wanton slaughter of innocent Syrians. The U.S. and its coalition partners must issue an ultimatum to Mr. Assad — stop flying or lose your aircraft — and be prepared to follow through.”