Tuesday July 09, 2013 | 01:41 PM

WASHINGTON – Fresh off their trip to the Middle East, Maine Sen. Angus King and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin are calling on the Obama administration to lead a coalition of nations to exert additional “military pressure” on the Syrian government.

Levin, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and King recently traveled to Jordan and Turkey to talk to military and diplomatic officials about how the war in Syria is affecting the region and U.S. interests. King serves on Armed Services and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

King shared his personal thoughts on the trip with the Portland Press Herald last week. On Tuesday, King and Levin released a joint statement that lays out some additional steps that they said could help convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to come to the negotiating table.

Those steps include:

  • Continued training and arming of “properly vetted” members of Syrian rebel forces.
  • Work with the “London 11” group of nations to explore other ways to exert military pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad without committing U.S. troops to the on-the-ground effort. Those additional steps could include targeted strikes of Syrian planes, tanks, missiles and helicopters.
  • Convene a meeting of allies to discuss specific contingency plans for a post-Assad Syria.

Following is the full text of the joint statement from Levin and King:

“Assad’s brutality against the Syrian people has created a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize the entire region.  His use of air strikes, missiles, helicopters, tanks, and artillery, and other brutal actions – including the use of chemicals – against individuals, cities, and villages has led to the killing of more than 100,000 men, women and children, caused more than a million to flee the country, forced millions more to leave their homes, and motivated the Syrian people to rise up against him.  They are mounting a true insurgency against the Assad regime.

The objective of the United States continues to be a political settlement that transitions Syria to a post-Assad regime that is inclusive of, and protective of, all elements of Syrian society.  Advancing the goal of a political settlement will require actions to change the military dynamic in Syria and convince the Assad regime and its supporters that momentum is not on their side and that their best option is a political solution.

We, along with most Americans, are reluctant to see our military become involved in yet another war. The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in dollars and, more importantly, in the lives and well-being of our young men and women has already been huge and should slow any impulse for further engagement in another conflict. Before making any military commitments, we should be able to answer three basic questions: One, are U.S. national security interests at stake? Two, is there a clear objective our engagement is intended to achieve? And third, what is our strategy for concluding the conflict?

Answering these questions in connection with the current civil war in Syria is not easy, but the passage of time and recent events in that country make it imperative that that they be addressed now. After wide ranging and in-depth discussions with our own diplomatic, military and intelligence officials in the region, high-ranking representatives of Turkey and Jordan (two of Syria's immediate neighbors and two of our closest friends in the region), and dozens of Syrians – from the leader of the main opposition army, to men, women and children who have literally fled for their lives – we have concluded that although there are no good options for us in this complicated conflict, doing nothing may the worst option of all.

We believe that this conflict has put U.S. national security interests at stake. First is the stability of our allies Turkey and Jordan, along with that of Israel and other strategic partners in the region. The flow of refugees from Syria is straining the resources of Turkey and threatens to overwhelm Jordan. These refugees to Jordan now number more than a million – in a nation of only six and a half million people. If this were happening in the same proportion in our country, we would be coping with more than 50 million refugees – and Jordan is already strained by challenges of water and energy shortages. The largest refugee camp near the Syrian border has become, almost overnight, the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Second, the conflict in Syria has become a proxy war where the principal sponsors of the Assad regime include Iran and its Hezbollah ally – and it clearly would not be in our interest to see them expand their influence in the region.

And finally, there are the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons we know are stored at various sites throughout Syria. Unlike the non-existent weapons of mass destruction which helped to justify our invasion of Iraq ten years ago, there is no doubt that these deadly weapons exist and are available for use by the regime – which has shown no compunction about killing its own people.  Terrorist organizations are now increasingly involved in the conflict and are surely seeking access to those weapons. Al Qaeda or Hezbollah equipped with chemical weapons is a clear threat to U.S. national security interests.

So if we are to get involved, what is our objective? This answer is straightforward – to move the regime and, perhaps more importantly, Assad's other major sponsor, Russia, to the bargaining table where a transition to a stable Syria can be negotiated. This looked possible as recently as two months ago when Secretary Kerry was in Moscow and "Geneva II" seemed likely. But recent military gains by the regime have changed that calculus and there is less incentive for Assad – and Russia – to negotiate. A stalemate that restores momentum toward a political settlement would achieve our objectives. This is both the mission and a strategy for concluding the conflict.

It is important that we make clear that no one--not our allies, not the Syrian opposition, and most of all not the two of us – is advocating American boots on the ground in Syria. That would compromise, not help, the opposition and is clearly unacceptable to the American people. But there are ways in which we can and should influence events, especially by providing leadership to the currently loosely organized coalition of forces opposed to the continuation of the Assad regime. In fact, everywhere we went on our trip, this was the one consistent plea from our allies and partners – they asked not just for arms, training, or airstrikes, they asked for United States leadership.

Here are the steps we propose:

                First, American efforts to work with our friends and allies to train and equip properly-vetted members of the Syrian opposition are underway.  We believe that these efforts should be expanded to help the Syrian people succeed in doing what only they can do – freeing their country from Assad’s brutal regime.

                At the same time, the asymmetric insurgent tactics of the opposition may not be sufficient to convince Assad that he cannot prevail, even with the more lethal weapons which are now coming into the opposition’s possession.  The United States can address this problem by joining with other members of the so-called “London 11,” including a number of countries in the region who openly oppose the Assad regime, to comprehensively plan for additional steps that could be taken to up the military pressure on the Assad regime.

                Such plans could include options for limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including airplanes, helicopters, missiles, tanks, and artillery – coordinated with the actions of the Syrian opposition on the ground.  Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities, bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people, show the serious purpose of a broad international coalition, boost the morale of the Free Syrian Army, and hopefully bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table.

                For this reason, we call upon the Administration to convene a meeting of the political, military, and intelligence leaders of countries committed to the end of the Assad regime.  The objective of this summit should be to develop specific options and plans for a range of contingencies and to enlist firm commitments from our friends and allies, so that the Assad regime and its supporters will understand the seriousness of purpose of this joint effort.

It is not only important that Assad goes.  It is also important that his departure not create a vacuum into which sectarian divisions deepen and spread and in which terrorist groups could gain strength.  Unless there is a planned transition to an inclusive political and military structure to provide a secure and stable follow-on to Assad, a longer civil war could replace the current conflict.  Such a war would bring unspeakable suffering to the Syrian people, could spread through the region, and could create safe havens from which al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations could again bring suffering and terror to the United States and our friends and allies.  The best way to prevent this is a negotiated end to the current hostilities.

                We are not calling for American boots on the ground, but rather for supporting the Syrian people’s struggle by helping to train and equip them and by forming a broad international coalition to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime.  That is the best way to promote a negotiated transition to a Syria with a constitutional, legitimate government that protects its people instead of attacking them.”

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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