Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain hotly disputed a study claiming that at least half of Syria’s rebels are radical jihadis, repeatedly exclaiming “Not true, not true!”
“Frankly, I just disagree,” McCain told the Council on Foreign Relations audience, challenging the contention by defense consultancy IHS Jane’s that “the insurgency is now dominated by groups with at least an Islamist viewpoint of the conflict.”
“There’s about 70 percent still who are Free Syrian Army,” McCain said, flipping on its head the consulting firm’s research showing that just 30 percent are fighting for secular values.
McCain has frequently called for an increase in arms shipments to rebels groups fighting the Assad regime, and on Tuesday evening he sought to diminish concerns that these arms may one day be turned against the United States or its allies.
“The point, I think, that you and others are missing,” he told the questioner, “[is that] Syria is a moderate nation. Syria has the highest literacy rate of any nation in the Middle East. They are not going to submit to a jihadis or al-Qaida group governing them. They will not.”
“That’s a really a convenient cop-out to say, ‘Oh, we don’t know who they are,’” he continued angrily. “I know who they are. I was in Syria and I met them.”
But at other times, the senator noted that large parts of Syria are now “safe havens for thousands of extremists” and that their numbers grow “day by day.”
McCain also dismissed the Obama administration’s line that negotiations between the United States, Syria and Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles represented a turning point in the conflict.
“I wish I could see the recent agreement between Russia and the United States . . . as a major breakthrough,” he said. “Unfortunately, I cannot,” he continued, claiming that Russia “led the administration . . . into a diplomatic blind alley.
“The fact is the Assad regime will likely avoid any meaningful punishment for it’s use — not just possession, but use — of weapons of mass destruction,” he lamented.
The senator repeated what has become his mantra over the last few weeks: “Degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime, upgrade the capabilities of the moderate opposition, shift the momentum on the battlefield, and thereby create conditions for a negotiated end of the conflict and the removal from power of Assad and his top henchmen.”
McCain stated that the key to this strategy is “meaningful lethal assistance to moderate opposition forces.” He bemoaned the slow pace of American weapons transfers, which thus far have been facilitated by the CIA.
“It’s long past time to offer significant training and equipment for moderate Syrian forces, and the Defense Department is best suited to lead this expanded mission,” he said.
It’s likely the senator will see his dream of a Pentagon-led armament campaign realized. On Monday, The Washington Examiner reported that President Barack Obama waived a portion of federal law prohibiting military assistance to terrorist groups, paving the way for a large-scale weapons transfer to even some radical elements of the Syrian opposition.
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