The Cable

McCain to call for air strikes on Syria

Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.

"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."

The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.

McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.

"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."

McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.

"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."

He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.

"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.

McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.

"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.

"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Biden meets with Mexican presidential candidates amid drug debate

Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico today to meet with all three candidates in that country's presidential election, but the White House isn't taking any sides.

Biden left Washington Sunday night and is in Mexico today, meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. But Calderon is barred from running for reelection in July, so Biden is taking the opportunity to visit with his possible successors. On Tuesday, Biden will travel to Honduras to meet with President Pepe Lobo.

"This trip is the latest chapter in the administration's sustained, high-level engagement with our partners in the Americas. The economic security, familial, historic and cultural ties we share with the Americas and particularly with Mexico and Central America, are among the most consequential we have as a country," said Biden's National Tony Blinken on a conference call with reporters.

"The ongoing challenge posed by the drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations is one critical shared responsibility. We strongly support Mexico's efforts in dealing with this challenge, and the United States and Mexico are collaborating as never before."

Biden will also meet with presidential candidates Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Josefina Vázquez Mota, in alphabetical order, as to not appear to be playing favorites.

"He'll underscore to each that the United States will continuing working with President Calderon and his administration until the final day that they're in office, and that we look very much forward to working with whomever the Mexican people elect as their next president," Blinken said.

Blinken wouldn't comment on the statements by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) questioning whether one of the Mexican presidential candidates would continue Calderon's commitment to the increased tempo and aggressiveness of the campaign against the Mexican drug cartels.

In a February hearing with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, McCain asked Clapper whether the next Mexican president would keep up the campaign that Calderon began in Dec. 2006. Clapper said yes.

"Well, I might suggest you focus on that question a little more closely, Mr. Director, because I don't believe that's the case, at least with respect to one of the candidates," McCain said, not identifying which candidate he was talking about.

Both Obrador and Nieto have made statements indicating they might pull the Mexican military back from the fight if elected.

On Tuesday, after meeting with Lobo, Biden will attend a working lunch to prepare for the upcoming Summit of the Americas. At that lunch will be several regional leaders, including the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama.

At that meeting, drug policy is set to be discussed as well, including the increasingly popular proposal in Central America of decriminalizing drug use and altering the current policy regarding fighting the cartels. But the Obama administration is not on board with what would be seen in the United States as a radical departure from longstanding U.S. drug policy.

"The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs," said NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo. "At the same time, we've also been very open -- the president has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly -- of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, as in the case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people's daily lives and daily routines."