Sen. John McCain said Sunday that the United States must help the people of Syria who are potentially being attacked by chemical weapons, but warned repeatedly that U.S. troops on the ground would be the worst thing America could do right now.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, McCain, one of the most outspoken lawmakers on Syria, called for U.S. involvement in helping end that country's conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
"The American people are weary. They don't want boots on the ground. I don't want boots on the ground," McCain said. "The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria."
McCain suggested that the United States should look at arming the rebels, use airstrikes to attack forces of the embattled President Bashar al-Assad and create a safe haven for refugees. He added that an international force should be prepared to secure chemical weapons if and when Assad falls. "There's a number of caches of chemical weapons that cannot fall into hands of the jihadists."
The senator suggested that U.S. involvement was imperative. "This woman who was a schoolteacher said, 'Sen. McCain, do you see these children here? They're going to take revenge on those people who refused to help them,'" McCain recalled. "They're angry and bitter. And that legacy could last for a long time too, unless we assist them."
He added, "For about two years this situation has deteriorated in a very alarming fashion, affected the surrounding countries, destabilized Lebanon, destabilized Jordan, and has had implications and repercussions throughout the region."
The White House has said Assad's forces used chemical weapons, warning that that could cross President Obama's "red line."
"We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists," Obama announced on March 21.
But McCain said that Obama's red line gave Assad a "green light" to do anything but use chemical weapons. "Our actions should not be dictated on whether Bashar Assad used chemical weapons or not," he said. "First of all, sooner or later he most likely would in order to maintain his hold on power."
The Syrian conflict is complex. It is estimated that about 10 percent of Syria's 23 million people are Christian, another 10 percent are from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. Another 10 percent, or more, are non-Arab ethnic Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslim but have their own language and culture, and are seen as secular and western-oriented. The rest, about 70 percent, are largely Sunni Muslims.
While President Assad is an Alawite and supported by Iran as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah among other Shi'a groups, the opposition movement is aided by Saudi Arabia and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists. Some of the groups fighting government forces are affiliated with al-Qaida, or receive support from it.