Sen. Lindsey Graham wants aggressive U.S. strike in Syria

James Rosen | Tribune Media

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Friday for a strong U.S. response to last week’s use of chemical weapons outside Damascus, urging multiple missile strikes aimed at destroying Syrian President Bashar Assad’s major military assets and rendering him largely powerless.

While Graham, in a statement with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, said the attack could be done “in a limited way, without boots on the ground,” the breadth of the two Republican senators’ suggested action would significantly increase U.S. involvement in a two-year civil war in Syria that has left 100,000 people dead and sent 1 million refugees into neighboring countries.

“The goal of military action in Syria should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces,” the senators said. “The United States, together with our friends and allies, should take out Assad’s air power, ballistic missiles, command and control, and other significant military targets, and we should dramatically increase our efforts to train and arm moderate Syrian opposition forces.”

In an earlier conference call with South Carolina constituents, Graham branded Assad “a war criminal” for having allegedly used chemical weapons in violation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which the United States and other Western powers ratified, but to which Syria is not a party.

Graham, a military lawyer who has served active on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, issued their challenge after receiving intelligence briefings from the Obama administration.

While the two senators, both senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged coordinating action with U.S. allies, they did not mention the British Parliament’s vote Thursday against participation in a strike against Syria, or Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to abide by the legislative resolution.

In a dig at President Barack Obama, Graham and McCain said, “The purpose of the military action in Syria should not be to help the president save face. It should not be merely cosmetic.”

The senators expressed concern that “it does not appear that the response to this historic atrocity being contemplated by the Obama administration will be equal to the gravity of the crime itself and to U.S. national security interests at stake in Syria.”

Saying “the Iranians are watching every move we make in Syria,” Graham told his constituents that the U.S. response against Assad will have consequences far beyond Syria’s borders.

“The Iranians are marching toward a nuclear weapon,” Graham said. “And if we’re indifferent, if we respond poorly to Assad, I think that gives a green light to the Iranians that we as Americans are really not serious about stopping their nuclear program, which would be a game-changer for the world.”

Graham said a victory by Assad would also lead to the fall of Jordan’s King Abdullah II within a year. He praised Jordan as a moderate Middle East nation that has helped the United States combat terrorism, made peace with Israel and provided refuge to 600,000 Syrians who’ve fled the fighting in their country.

Noting that Hezbollah, a radical Islamic Shiite group based in Lebanon, has joined the war in Syria, Graham expressed fear that it would acquire chemical weapons and use them against Israel.

Graham said Obama needs to do a better job of rallying Americans behind military action against Syria.

“He needs to lead the American people and make a case of what our national security interests are,” the senator said.

As he seeks election to a third term, Graham is facing Republican primary opposition from foes who say he’s too willing to cooperate with Obama and other Democrats, and who oppose his support of immigration reforms.

Graham was a strong defender of Obama’s top national security team during most of the president’s first term. But the Seneca Republican has become more critical since the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA director David Petraeus, with all of whom he had close ties.

By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau