May 20, 2014: Sen. John McCain's Keynote Speech on Syria at the 2014 EU-Washington Forum in Washington, DC.


Senator John McCain delivered the keynote address at the 2014 EU-Washington Forum on Tuesday, May 20, at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington, D.C. The event was co-hosted by The Middle East Institute and the European Union Institute for Security Studies. Jump to podcast.

I thank you and everyone at the European Union Institute for Security Studies and The Middle East Institute for hosting this event, allowing me a few minutes to speak on such an important topic, and I will be glad to respond to your questions and comments at the completion of my remarks. Usually that’s the most beneficial part of any of my engagements.

I do begin speeches with a joke or two, but with the horrific situation in Syria, it’s hard to summon a lot of levity. The Middle East today, as you well know, is engulfed in an escalating regional conflict. The space for moderate politics in country after country is collapsing, and a process of radicalization is increasingly destabilizing the entire region. And at the center of this growing conflict stands Syria, where, for over three years now, the Syrian people have faced an onslaught of unspeakable violence from President Bashar al-Assad and his forces. As of today more than 160,000 Syrians have been killed. 9.3 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and 9.3 million have been driven from their homes. That’s nearly half the Syrian population, in what the United Nations has described as “the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times,” and there’s no end in sight. In fact, Assad appears to be accelerating his fight to the finish, with the death toll rising by some 10,000 souls in the last two months.

Each and every day we’re confronted with the inhumane cruelty of Mr. Assad and his forces. We’ve seen the evidence of the systematic abuse, torture, starvation, and killing of approximately 11,000 detainees in what clearly amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN has detailed the further arrest, detention, torture, and sexual abuse of thousands of children by government forces. Human Rights Watch has documented how Syrian authorities have deliberately used explosives and bulldozers to demolish entire neighborhoods for no military reason whatsoever, just as a form of collective punishment of Syrian civilians.

They have also documented the toll of the Syrian government’s airstrike campaign and, in particular, the regime’s use of crude cluster munitions that have become known as barrel bombs. Their sole purpose is to maim, kill, and terrorize as many civilians as possible when indiscriminately dropped on schools, bakeries, and mosques.

Worse yet, evidence is piling up that Assad’s forces have been equipping these barrel bombs with chlorine gas. Just last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France has evidence of at least 14 chlorine-based chemical attacks carried out by Syrian government forces since late 2013, adding that, and I quote, "The regime is still capable of producing chemical weapons and is determined to use them.” The State Department has further verified these reports, stating that there were “indications of the use of chlorine,” though it was quick to point out that this was not one of the chemicals that Syria was obliged to surrender under the agreement. So it appears that we’re faced with a situation in which the Assad regime has agreed to give up certain chemical weapons after using them to murder nearly 1,400 civilians last year, but it is using other chemicals--less lethal, but nonetheless effective--to continue gassing civilians to death.

And the world does nothing, nothing about it. Why? Because technically this is permitted under the chemical weapons agreement. That is both shameful and outrageous. What’s more, months after the deadline for removing all of its chemical weapons stockpiles, the Syrian government has yet to fulfill its obligations under the treaty, and is using its remaining stockpiles to bargain over the terms of the original agreement in the hopes of retaining its storage and production facilities. We’re once again faced with images of men, women, and children writhing on the ground and gasping for breath. Assad appears to be disregarding some of his chemical weapons commitments and continuing to commit mass atrocities.

This apocalyptic disaster in Syria is no longer just a humanitarian tragedy for one country. It is a regional conflict and an emerging national security threat to us all.

Again, red lines are tested and crossed, and the United States and the world do nothing. They’re  just some of the many reasons why our director of national intelligence referred to the Syrian crisis as “an apocalyptic disaster.” But this apocalyptic disaster in Syria is no longer just a humanitarian tragedy for one country. It is a regional conflict and an emerging national security threat to us all.

No one should believe that we will be immune to what is happening in Syria. None of us are immune. The regime’s war crimes are being aided and abetted by thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian agents on the ground, as well as Russian weaponry that continues to flow in to the Assad government, even as the Russian government works with us to remove the Assad regime’s chemical weapons—a truly Orwellian situation. Through their fight on Assad’s side, some of our most dangerous adversaries are being empowered, gaining valuable experience and new expertise, and enhancing their influence in positions in the region.

The conflict in Syria is also devastating its neighbors. Lebanon is suffering from increased bombings and cross-border attacks by both the Syrian government and opposition fighters in response to Hezbollah’s role in the fighting. Unofficial estimates suggest that half of Lebanon’s population will soon be Syrian refugees. Similar estimates suggest that Syrian refugees now represent 15 percent of the population in Jordan, which is straining to manage the social instability this entails. Turkey has even had a degree of destabilization, and the conflict in Syria is largely to blame for the resurgence of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, which has grown into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now possesses a safe haven that spans large portions of both countries.

The terrorist sanctuary al-Qa'ida and its associated forces now enjoy in Syria and Iraq increasingly poses a direct threat to U.S. national security and that of our closest allies and partners. Our new secretary of homeland security, Mr. Jeh Johnson, has said, “Syria is now a matter of homeland security.” The director of national intelligence has referred to the al-Qa'ida sanctuary in Syria and Iraq as a new FATA, the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan where al-Qa'ida planned the September 11th terrorist attacks. Indeed, Director Clapper has warned that the al-Qa'ida affiliated terrorists in Syria now aspire to attack the homeland, our homeland.

If the September 11th attacks should have taught us anything, it is that global terrorists who occupy ungoverned spaces and seek to plot and plan attacks against us can pose a direct threat to our national security. That was Afghanistan on September 10th, 2001. That is what top officials in this administration are now warning us that Syria is becoming today.

My friends, here is the tragic reality of the war in Syria. After more than three years of horror and suffering and devastation and growing threats to international security, the conflict in Syria continues to get worse and worse, both for Syria and the world, but the United States and the international community have no effective policy to help bring this conflict to a responsible end. The Geneva peace talks have failed entirely, as was totally predictable. Anyone who believed that Bashar al-Assad was going to a meeting anywhere to negotiate for his departure has to be smoking something a lot stronger than what is legalized in some parts of the United States.

The United States and the international community have been reluctant to provide the opposition with much needed material support. Meanwhile Assad has the active support of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, and is using nearly every weapon in his arsenal to kill his way to victory, and he is winning. And he is winning. So why should he want to negotiate himself out of power?  

After painful and costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war-weary American public does not appear eager for an active internationalist foreign policy, and President Obama has sought to give the people what they want. And while it’s understandable and unsurprising that the American public has been reluctant to get more engaged with events in Syria and the wider Middle East, the tide of war does not recede simply because we wish it so.  

The outcome of the administration’s disengagement has been a consistent failure to support more responsible forces in Syria when that support would have mattered. The descent of Syria into chaos and instability; the use of Syria as a training ground for al-Qa'ida affiliates and other terrorist organizations; the ceding of regional leadership to our adversaries; and the tolerance of war crimes and crimes against humanity--in short, all of the awful things that the critics said would happen if we got more involved in Syria have happened because we have not gotten more involved.  

We continue to hear it said, including by the president, that there are no good options in Syria—as if there were ever good options in the real world—that the only alternative of our current disengagement is a full-scale ground invasion and war without end. It is true that our options to help in the conflict in Syria were never good, and they are much worse and fewer now, but as bad as our options in Syria or anywhere else may be, we still have options, and no one should believe that doing something meaningful to help in Syria requires total war or invasion. Literally no one is calling for that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so. This is not a question of options or costs or capabilities, but a question of will.

For example, we could upgrade the capabilities of the anti-Assad, anti-al-Qa'ida opposition forces in Syria to make them more effective in their efforts to counter the regime, defend civilians, deliver humanitarian aid, and fight terrorists. We could begin a large-scale effort to arm, train, and equip greater numbers of opposition fighters, including with the anti-air and anti-tank weapon systems that they are asking for and desperately need. We could help opposition forces to liberate larger portions of Syria and declare them to be humanitarian safe zones, in which civilians could find protection and receive food, medicine, and other assistance. We could make U.S. airpower and other military capabilities available with those of our allies and partners as part of an international effort to defend these safe zones in Syria and to prevent Assad’s forces from harassing civilians there.

We could also use U.S. standoff missiles and precision strike capabilities to strike the Assad regime’s aircraft and air bases that are responsible for the indiscriminate attack on civilians using barrel bombs and other weapons. This would be a limited, targeted action that would require no boots on the ground.

Will actions such as these immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But they could save thousands of innocent lives in Syria, give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed, turn the tide against Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, and mitigate the growing threat against American national security interests.

I have seen my fair share of suffering and death in the world. But the images and stories coming out of Syria haunt me most.

The continued violence in Syria is expected to kill tens of thousands more and produce millions of refugees by the end of this year. This is a humanitarian tragedy to be sure, but one with immediate strategic consequences. The longer the devastation goes on the more difficult it will be to put Syria back together, and failing to do so will leave a dangerous conflagration in the heart of the Middle East: a failed state at war with itself, where extremists and instability will fester and terrorists of all brands will find ample space, resources, and recruits to menace the region, Europe, and eventually the United States. If there ever was a case that should remind us that our interests are indivisible from our values, it is Syria. And we cannot afford to go numb to this human tragedy.

I have seen my fair share of suffering and death in the world. But the images and stories coming out of Syria haunt me most. In the past fifteen minutes since I started speaking, at least two Syrians have been killed, 45 Syrians have become refugees, and 15 Syrian families have been forced from their homes, and another fifteen minutes from now, two more will be killed, 45 more will become refugees, and 15 more families will be forced from their homes. Is that acceptable to us?

All of us, Americans and Europeans, must recognize that our power infers a responsibility on us. If the most powerful nations in the world have the capabilities and the options to help bring an end to one of the most horrific mass atrocities in modern times, what does it say about us that we have not done so? History will render a bitter and scathing judgment on America and the world for our failure in Syria, and I pray that we will finally recognize that and take the necessary actions to help the Syrian people write a better ending to this sad chapter of world affairs.

I thank you very much for listening.

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