McCain Questions U.S. Strategy for Fighting ISIL in Syria: Assad 'Has Killed Many More’

By Penny Starr | September 16, 2014 | 1:10pm EDT

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified at a Senate Armed Services on Sept. 16, 2014 at a hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee focused on the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). ( Starr)

( – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) challenged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Martin Dempsey at a Senate Armed Services hearing on Tuesday about whether equipping moderate rebels in Syria to fight ISIL will include protecting them from attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s military.

“It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept and motivation of the Free Syrian Army,” McCain said. “It is Bashar Assad that has killed many more of them than ISIL has.”

“I agree,” Demsey said.

“And for us to say that were are going to go in and help and train and put these people in only to fight against ISIL -- you’re not going to get many recruits to do that, General, I guarantee you that,” McCain said. “And that’s a fundamental fallacy of everything you are presenting to this committee today.”

In the six-minute exchange, McCain laid out the case for the threat posed by Assad to the people in Syria, including the 5,000 rebels the Obama administration has said it wants to train and equip to fight ISIL.

“They’ll also be fighting against Bashar Assad, which they’ve been doing for a number of years before ISIL was ever a significant factor,” McCain said. “Now they will be fighting against Bashar Assad.

“And Bashar Assad will attack them from the air, which he has done with significant success – not only against them but – 192,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria since the onset.”

When pressed by McCain about whether the U.S. would protect Syrians against Assad, Hagel did not answer directly.

“Would we take action to prevent them from being attacked by Bashar Assad?” McCain asked.

“Well, we’re, first of all, not there yet,” Hagel responded. “But our focus is on ISIL, and that is the threat right now to our country and to our interests and to the people in the region.”

In his prepared remarks, however, Hagel said the U.S. wants an “end of the Assad regime.”

"As we pursue this program, the United States will continue to press for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict resulting in the end of the Assad regime,” Hagel said.

“Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern, and has created the conditions that allowed ISIL and other terrorist groups to gain ground and terrorize and slaughter the Syrian population,” Hagel said. “The United States will not coordinate or cooperate with the Assad regime."

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