A Syrian army tank is stationed outside the military airport in Dabaa, north of Qusayr, in central Homs province on June 7. (AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The United States should press Syria and Russia to enter into talks to end the Syrian civil war, including “targeted” strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s military forces, a White House ally said Tuesday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, an influential Obama administration ally on Capitol Hill, is calling for America and its allies to conduct “limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including airplanes, helicopters, missiles, tanks and artillery.”
Such strikes should be “coordinated with the actions of the Syrian opposition on the ground,” the Michigan Democrat said in a joint statement with fellow SASC member Angus King, I-Maine.
“Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities, bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people, show we are serious,” said Levin and King.
The duo just returned from a swing through the Middle East, where they huddled with several anti-Assad leaders.
Levin and King would like to see the establishment of a “broad international coalition” that would pressure Assad and his forces. They believe a coalition would “boost the morale of the Free Syrian Army, and hopefully bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table.”
In the statement, the senators note that the White House’s previously announced plans to train and equip “properly-vetted members of the Syrian opposition are underway.”
“We believe that these efforts should be expanded to help the Syrian people succeed in doing what only they can do — freeing their country from Assad’s brutal regime,” said Levin and King.
But, they say, more is needed.
“The asymmetric insurgent tactics of the opposition may not be sufficient to convince Assad that he cannot prevail,” the US lawmakers say, “even with the more lethal weapons which are now coming into the opposition’s possession.”
By stating he supports US military strikes in Syria, the typically measured Levin is joining Washington interventionists like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long called for American military action to end the bloody civil conflict.
But, like McCain and others, Levin and King oppose putting American troops on the ground to tip the balance toward opposition forces.
“We are not calling for American boots on the ground, but rather for supporting the Syrian people’s struggle by helping to train and equip them and by forming a broad international coalition to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime,” the senators said.
“That is the best way to promote a negotiated transition to a Syria with a constitutional, legitimate government that protects its people instead of attacking them,” Levin and King said.
The two lawmakers made clear Washington should do more to end the fighting, which some independent groups say has claimed over 100,000 lives. Levin and King on Tuesday called for the US to take the lead in an international effort.
“We call upon the Administration to convene a meeting of the political, military and intelligence leaders of countries committed to the end of the Assad regime,” they said. “The objective of this summit should be to develop specific options and plans for a range of contingencies and to enlist firm commitments from our friends and allies, so that the Assad regime and its supporters will understand the seriousness of purpose of this joint effort.”
If a US-led coalition were to force the embattled Assad from power, Levin and King want diplomats from across the region and globe to craft a plan to ensure the country avoids political chaos, and does not become an al-Qaida base.
Experts say both would deliver a major blow to American interests in the Middle East.
“Unless there is a planned transition to an inclusive political and military structure to provide a secure and stable follow-on to Assad, a longer civil war could replace the current conflict,” Levin and King said.
“Such a war would bring unspeakable suffering to the Syrian people, could spread through the region, and could create safe havens from which al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations could again bring suffering and terror to the United States and our friends and allies,” the senators said. “The best way to prevent this is a negotiated end to the current hostilities.”
Any US military involvement in the kinds of “targeted strikes” called for by Levin and King would come with a hefty price.
As America learned with the Libya intervention, even modern-day aerial bombardments from aircraft and naval vessels are extremely costly. The cost of the Libya mission was around $1 billion, according to Pentagon data released in 2011.
Congressional sources are mixed about whether a new 2013 emergency spending measure tailored specifically for a Syrian effort would be needed. Some say it would depend on the shape and duration — as well as the level of direct US military involvement — of such a mission.