John McCain supports 'limited' US strike on Syria, but wants more arms for rebels

As administration makes case for action to Congress, hawkish senator says as well as attacking Syria, US must do more to arm rebels

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 10:35am

The White House's aggressive push for congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Barack Obama's most hawkish Republican critics, Senator John McCain, who said he supported a "limited" strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian opposition.

After an hour-long meeting at the White House, McCain and fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham said on Monday that Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to train the Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, which had been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria.

There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, McCain and Graham said, that any attack on Syria should aim to "degrade" the Syrian government's delivery systems.

But McCain said in an interview that Obama did not say specifically what weapons might be provided to the opposition or discuss in detail what Syrian targets might be attacked.

"There was no concrete agreement, 'OK, we got a deal'," McCain said. "Like a lot of things, the devil is in the details."

Obama has stressed that any US action, expected to include cruise missile attacks, would be "limited" and "narrow".

But McCain said he had "been given some reason to believe that very serious strikes may take place as opposed to cosmetic [ones]".

"I don't think it is an accident that the aircraft carrier is being moved over in the region," he said.

The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier was heading westwards towards the Red Sea, though had not yet received orders to support a strike on Syria.

The White House declined to comment on the suggestions of a wider operation or increased aid to the rebels, but it also did not challenge them.

In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, McCain called the meeting "encouraging".

The White House still faces a tough fight in Congress, where many lawmakers entirely oppose a strike, and others favour a resolution that provides for more limited military action than what is in a draft resolution that the White House has sent to Capitol Hill. The conflict of opinion underscores Obama's challenge in winning a vote in the House and Senate next week and avoiding personal defeat.

In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying that Syria had challenged the US and France to provide proof to support their allegations, but that their leaders "have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples".

"If the Americans, the French or the British had a shred of proof, they would have shown it beginning on the first day," he said, deriding Obama as "weak" and having buckled to US domestic political pressure.

"We believe that a strong man is one who prevents war, not one who inflames it," Assad said.

In Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the number of Syrian refugees fleeing the country had passed the two million mark, rising nearly tenfold from a year ago.

"Syria is haemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs," it said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press