As the Obama administration considers striking the Syrian regime as soon as Thursday, President Obama and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey are coming under increased criticism for their handling of the ballooning crisis.
Administration officials have told various news outlets that Obama is considering limited cruise-missile or bomber strikes against regime targets, likely for a period of three days. The strikes would be a punishment and deterrent aimed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to his reported use of chemical weapons against civilians near Damascus on August 21. Opposition sources have said they were told by “Western powers” that strikes could begin within the next few days.
In an interview during a diplomatic trip to South Korea, Sen. John McCain-one of the administration’s fiercest critics on Syria policy-said that recent statements by Dempsey signaled to Assad that he could escalate his use of chemical weapons against his own population without significant international consequences.
“General Dempsey has to be embarrassed,” McCain said about Dempsey’s letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliott Engel (D-New York) on August 19, in which Dempsey said the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria and that even destroying Assad’s air force was not a good idea.
“It would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict,” wrote Dempsey, the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides … We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”
McCain said those comments, combined with Obama’s tepid responses to multiple other reported instances of chemical weapons being used in Syria by the Assad regime, convinced Assad that he could escalate his use of weapons of mass destruction.
“Dempsey made an incredible illogical statement and then a few days later we saw a massive use of chemical weapons,” McCain said. “I’m sure that Bashar al-Assad paid attention to the top military man in America’s words that we were not going to get involved.”
Obama also shares blame for giving Assad the impression he could escalate the use of chemical weapons by not responding forcefully to previous alleged chemical-weapons attacks over the past year, McCain said.
“Assad was able to use chemical weapons before and there was no response, and so why not do it again? This should surprise no one,” McCain said. “They viewed that not as a red line but as a green light, and they acted accordingly.”
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