WASHINGTON — A prominent US senator on Wednesday called for a multinational summit of military and intelligence officials to draw up plans for “limited actions” in Syria.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., just returned from meetings with Turkish and Jordanian leaders. Those talks led the veteran senator to conclude that military strikes by the United States and its Middle Eastern allies are “the only way” to bring an end to the years-old Syrian civil war.
“Increased military pressure on Assad is the only way to achieve a negotiated settlement in Syria, which in turn is needed to restore stability to a region that certainly doesn’t need any more instability,” Levin said during a morning speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank here.
For that reason, Levin is pushing the Obama administration to huddle with Washington’s allies in the Middle East to begin crafting options for military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The administration should “begin this process by convening a meeting of the political, military and intelligence leaders of countries committed to the end of the Assad regime,” Levin said.
“The objective would be to develop specific options and plans for a range of contingencies and to enlist commitments from our coalition partners, so that the Assad regime and its supporters will understand the seriousness of purpose of this joint effort,” the SASC chairman and Senate Intelligence Committee member said.
Levin told a packed room that he supports reported Obama administration plans to arm rebel forces. Several media reports this week indicate members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees are blocking those plans due to a list of concerns.
“The United States should join with other members of the so-called ‘London 11,’ including a number of Arab countries in the region who openly oppose the Assad regime, to comprehensively plan additional steps to up the military pressure on the Assad regime,” Levin said.
He also referred to media reports that the CIA has begun transferring “light weapons” to Syrian rebel forces via Jordan, and could begin moving “anti-tank missiles” as soon as this month.
“I would not only support such efforts, I would expand these efforts to help the Syrian people succeed in doing what only they can do — wage a successful insurgency to free their country from Assad’s brutal regime,” Levin said.
He told the Carnegie audience he would only move heavy weapons, like anti-tank systems, to “properly vetted” rebels. He did not say how officials would determine when opposition forces have met standards to get heavy weaponry.
Levin and fellow SASC member Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who traveled with him to the region last week, on Tuesday called for US officials and allies to craft “options for limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including his airpower and artillery, coordinated with the actions of the Syrian opposition on the ground.”
US involvement in any military mission in Syria could require a new emergency spending measure to pay for America’s part. Any heavy weaponry or replacement munitions that the Pentagon or CIA buys to give to rebel forces or replace ones fired from US planes and ships could provide a momentary boon for American defense firms in the sequestration era.
Levin and King, based on their talks in Jordan and Turkey last week, are calculating that the mere threat of coalition military strikes would bring Assad and his few allies, like Russia, to the negotiating table.
Levin stressed to Defense News on Tuesday afternoon that he and King, for now, only want coalition military “plans” — not strikes. Yet.
“Even the announcement of a coordinated planning process for increased support to the Syrian opposition would show Assad and his Russian allies the serious purpose of a broad international coalition, boost the morale of the Free Syrian Army, and advance our limited goal of bringing about a political solution,” Levin said Wednesday
Levin did not comment on Tuesday when asked by Defense News if he envisions US aircraft or missile-lobbing naval vessels participating in any possible strikes. But he continues to oppose inserting US troops.
“I know of no one who is proposing American boots on the ground,” Levin said. “But we can and should support the Syrian people’s struggle by helping train and equip them and by helping establish a broad international coalition to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime.”
But on Wednesday he said, “you’d have to knock out [Syria’s] air defenses,” prefacing it with “if our aircraft went in.”
He cast the need to increase the pressure on Assad, and eventually oust him, as increasingly important to US and Israeli national security interests.
“Assad’s survival would strengthen terrorist organizations and state-sponsors of terrorism,” Levin said. “We will be less secure here in the United States if Iran and Hezbollah succeed in keeping Assad in power, increasing their ability to bring their terrorist tactics to the borders of Israel and to the rest of the world.
“Even if Assad’s regime survives only in the populated areas of Syria, large regions of the country would be left ungoverned, providing safe havens from which al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations can attack the United States and our friends and allies,” Levin said.
If that develops, the SASC chairman said, Syria “would be a lot like Afghanistan.”
Given what he sees as threats to the security of the US and its allies, and the potential that more Syrian civilians will die, Levin says the costs of not intervening “are too high.”
Meantime, Levin also addressed the chaotic situation in Egypt, just a day after he joined other US lawmakers in calling for new stipulations on the $1.5 billion in annual aid that Washington sends to Cairo. (That includes about $1.3 billion for Egypt’s military, which ousted Mohamed Morsi from that nation’s presidency.)
“There may be circumstances in which the overthrow of a democratically elected government is justified — for example, if it systematically attacks its own people,” Levin said. “There should be a very high threshold for such action, however, and that threshold was not met in Egypt.”