As rebel fighters bring their battle to the gates of Damascus, a top Senate Democrat is urging the United States to develop a more aggressive, more robust, and more strategic plan for ousting President Bashar al-Assad and supporting the Syrian opposition.
"We're at a point in the Syria crisis where we've got to have a more robust response to what's happening," Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who chairs the Middle East subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Cable in an interview Thursday.
"There's a growing frustration among people in both parties that there isn't a clear and specific and focused strategy, that it's been too tactical," Casey said. "The entire effort is lacking real strategic coordination."
Casey said the opportunity to remove Syria as a proxy of Iran in the Levant is too important to continue on the administration's current path of caution. The United States must ramp up financial, logistic, intelligence, and other types of assistance to the Syrian rebels, he said, and help the Syrian opposition fight the onslaught of Syrian air attacks on civilians.
"The people on the ground, there's no way they can endure the kind of air campaign that's underway right now. Unless you give serious consideration to somehow hampering that air force, you're not going to be able to change that dynamic," he said. "One of the best things our government can do is take a really thorough look at specific ways to hamper the ability of the Syrian air force to conduct the kind of attack they are conducting on their civilians," he said.
Casey said the Pentagon should work up plans for combatting the Syrian Air Force's ability to attack civilians, but stopped short of advocating providing anti-aircraft weapons, such as the shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS, to the Syria rebels.
The United States should seriously consider honoring Turkey's request for Patriot missile batteries to be stationed along the Syrian border, Casey said. The Obama administration is considering that now and may make a decision as early as next week, according to the New York Times.
"My understanding of the status of this is that Turkey has formally made its request to NATO and NATO has sent site-survey teams to Turkey to look at where to place them, what kinds of systems might be required, countries that could donate them," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday about the Patriot missile batteries.
Nuland said the Patriot batteries are meant to be for defensive purposes only and are not meant to defend airspace outside Turkey's borders. A survey team is in Turkey now and will report back to the NATO council, where any decision to deploy Patriot batteries to Turkey would be made.
"We've said that we strongly support NATO meeting the needs of our Turkish ally. We have to work through what precisely we would approve, but that process is in train," Nuland said.
Casey said the provision of Patriot batteries in Turkey along the Syrian border doesn't mean that NATO would be establishing a de facto no-fly zone over parts of Syria, but called it a step in the right direction. "It certainly provides a level of deterrence that we don't have there now," he said.
The Obama administration should also "amplify" the assistance the United States is already giving to the Syrian opposition, for example by increasing the intelligence assistance to those Syrian rebel groups the United States has identified as moderate and responsible.
The U.S. government has to ramp up its efforts to rally the international community toward a common strategy for Syria, Casey added.
If there's no change, there's a risk the U.S. could lose a real opportunity to diminish the influence and reach of Iran, according to Casey."Anything in the region that diminishes the influence of Iran is something we should be very focused on," he said.
"The killing you're seeing, that's a substantial factor in any decision you make. But the larger issue is our national security interest in the region."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.