State Dep’t Challenges McCain to ‘Say What We Should be Doing’ in Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | February 12, 2014 | 7:34pm EST

Sen. John McCain speaks on the Senate floor on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 about the crisis in Syria. (Image: C-SPAN)

( – The United States has been “very clear in condemning” the Assad regime’s bombing of Syrian civilians and has asked Russia to pressurize its ally on the issue, but “at the end of the day, we can’t impose outcomes here,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday.

“Quite frankly, when a regime is willing and able to brutalize its own people, you don’t have a lot of really good or easy options.”

Speaking during a daily press briefing, she defended the administration’s handling of the crisis, saying it was leading the humanitarian aid response and putting its “full diplomatic weight” behind the U.N.-led diplomatic effort to achieve a political transition.

Earlier Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of the administration’s approach to Syria, displayed graphic photos on the Senate floor depicting dead children and others, and in a speech predicted that a future American president will someday acknowledge that more could have been done, and “apologize for our current failure.”

“It is true that our options to help end the conflict in Syria were never good, and they certainly are worse and fewer now,” McCain said. “But no-one should believe that we are without options, even now. And no-one should believe that doing something meaningful to help in Syria requires us to rerun the war in Iraq. That is an excuse for inaction. This is not a question of options or capabilities. It is a question of will.”

McCain has previously called for the imposition of a no-fly zone, air strikes against regime forces aimed at establishing and defending safe havens, and the arming of opposition rebels.

Harf pushed back against his charge that the U.S. was doing “nothing meaningful” in response to the conflict, pointing to the talks process underway in Geneva, the provision of humanitarian aid, and a negotiated agreement for the regime to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile for destruction.

“We have pushed to get the U.N. to do something,” she added. “We’ve pushed to get the Russians to push the Syrian regime to do something.”

“I would challenge someone like Senator McCain to say what we should be doing,” Harf said. “Because the alternatives, quite frankly, don’t present a lot of good options either.”

“We believe here that the best policy tool we can use is diplomacy, backed by a credible threat of force,” Harf said later, adding that that was how the administration had dealt with the chemical weapons issue.

Asked why the administration did not similarly threaten force in a bid to stop the regime from using “barrel bombs” – explosives-packed barrels typically dropped from helicopters, often in populated civilian areas – Harf replied, “Well, we’ve said that all options remain on the table for dealing with this. But we believe the best policy we can pursue is a diplomatic solution here, that getting entrenched militarily in another country in the Middle East isn’t actually promoting our interests or our values.”

Notwithstanding the “full diplomatic weight” which the administration says it is applying to the effort, talks in Geneva between regime and opposition representatives have shown little sign of progress thus far.

And in New York, Russia threatened Wednesday to veto a draft Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria.

One day earlier, President Obama said that if the Russians blocked such a resolution they would share responsibility for the plight of Syrian civilians. Permanent council members Russia and China have vetoed three previous Syria resolutions since the conflict began.

In his Senate speech alongside photos of the Syrian victims, McCain said, “These images of the human disaster in Syria haunt me. And they should haunt all of my colleagues and all Americans.”

“But what haunts me even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes in Syria is the thought that we will continue to do nothing meaningful about it, and how that deadens our national conscience, and how it calls into question the moral sources of our great power and the foundations of our global leadership.”

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