The Cable

Ros-Lehtinen on bombing Syria: “My heart says yes but my head says no”

Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.

It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.

"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," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."

We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.

Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.

"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."

Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.

"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved...  But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"

Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.

"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.

She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.


The Cable

AIPAC chief: There’s still time… but we need to do more on Iran

Following President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Oval Office meeting Monday, the head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is calling for more time to let sanctions work -- but also for more sanctions.

"Our overall message at the moment is that a lot has been done -- by the president, by the Congress, but the community, by international organizations -- but at this point in time we think more needs to be done" to pressure Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told The Cable in a Monday interview on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference in Washington.

"We believe there is still time for these things to work. We believe there is still time to ratchet up the pressure, to create a different dynamic inside Iran and their decision-making. And we think that is going to be one of the central challenges at the moment."

AIPAC, and its 14,000 attendees who will be blanketing Capitol Hill Tuesday, will be pressing lawmakers and officials to take several specific additional steps to increase the pressure on Iran, Kohr said. AIPAC wants the administration to increase sanctions so they become "crippling" sanctions not just "biting" sanctions, which in Kohr's view means supporting quick passage and adopt of the Iran Threats Reduction Act, a new package of sanctions that cleared the Senate Banking Committee last month.

AIPAC also will ask lawmakers to fully implement the current sanctions against Central Bank of Iran and support new congressional resolutions that urge the United States to "support a policy that puts all options on the table, except containment" of a nuclear Iran, Kohr said.

"The president is actually quite clear about that himself and he made a very important point about that yesterday," Kohr said, referring to Obama's Sunday AIPAC speech, in which the president said, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Earlier Monday, Obama and Netanyahu gave brief remarks to the press before their Oval Office meeting. Obama emphasized that he also believes the time has not yet come to strike Iran but promised he would be willing to do so if there was no other way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians' regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far," Obama said. "My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.  And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it."

Netanyahu emphasized that Israel would make decisions about striking Iran by itself and based on its own national interest.

"Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions," Netanyahu said. "I believe that's why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself."

Kohr said that Obama "has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has done important things."

But he noted that the Obama administration is still communicating a red line of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Israel and AIPAC want to set as unacceptable Iran obtaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

"We believe that a nuclear weapons capability is already damaging enough to American interests as well as to regional interests," said Kohr. "Just having the capabilities, even before they put it together, will send shivers through the region."

Kohr said that the conference and today's bilateral meeting would hopefully allow all interlocutors in Washington and Israel to at least get on the same page and be able to send one unified message to the Iranians.

"What I hope comes out of the meeting is a commitment in what we know to be difficult days ahead not only for increased communications, but that whatever gaps exist be closed and that they are working together in this period of time. We think this is possible," he said.