McCain: Don't count on Russia to force out Assad

May 27, 2012 - 8:10 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. can't count on Russia — a major arms supplier to Syria — to force President Bashar Assad from power, Sen. John McCain said Sunday, blaming President Barack Obama for embracing a "feckless" foreign policy and punting tough decisions until after the fall election.

It was a particularly sharp rebuke even for McCain, R-Ariz., who as a longtime critic of Obama's war strategy hasn't pulled many punches. As the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain's viewpoint on complex world events often finds its way into GOP election-year talking points.

"This administration has a feckless foreign policy which abandons American leadership," McCain told "Fox News Sunday."

"What the conclusion you can draw is that this president wants to kick the can down the road on all of these issues until after the election. ... It's really an abdication of everything that America stands for and believes in," he later added.

Mitt Romney, Obama's presumed rival in this year's presidential election, said Obama "can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps." He said the current approach has only given Assad more time to crackdown on protesters.

"The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves," Romney said.

The White House called for Assad's ouster as recently as Saturday when it blamed the Syrian government for the deaths 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 has denied responsibility.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon to discuss the massacre, which took place in the Syrian town of Houla.

A council statement released after the meetings "condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of Houla, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood."

It also "condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," but avoided assessing responsibility for the killings.

Before the meeting, Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin had questioned whether Syrian tanks and artillery were responsible for the killings. He told reporters "there is substantial ground to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives or executed at point-blank distance."

Earlier this month, at the meeting of leading industrial nations at Camp David, White House officials said they had hoped Russia could use some of its sway to halt the bloody crackdown and raised the possibility of modeling a regime change in Syria after Yemen. Yemen's longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February as part of a U.S.-backed power transfer deal that gave him immunity from prosecution in return for relinquishing power.

According to U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev "did not dispute the fact that there needs to be a process of political transition" in Syria.

"I think the question is, just how does that manifest itself?" Rhodes told reporters at a May 19 press conference.

The United States wants to avoid escalating a confrontation with Moscow over Syria, but wants Medvedev to hear the depth of international outrage. Specifically, the U.S. wants to prevent another Security Council showdown, in which Russia might feel it had to veto any anti-Assad proposals on principle and the U.S. would lose that avenue as a practical alternative. Moscow and Beijing have already twice shielded Syria from U.N. sanctions over the crackdown.

According to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal diplomacy, the U.S. focus is now on getting Russia to tolerate a "political transition" in Syria similar to Yemen.

But McCain says the U.S. would be foolish to rely on Russia, a main supplier of arms to the Syrian military.

"Here we are a year later and 10,000 killed," he said, referring to the onset of protests across the Arab world. And "our hopes rest on convincing (Russia) to ease out Assad, comparing it to Yemen, which there is no comparison. It's really just a sad story."

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AP Writers Edith M. Lederer from the United Nations and Anne Gearan from Washington contributed to this report.