McCain: Don’t count on Russia to force out Assad

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States can’t count on Russia — a major arms supplier to Syria — to force Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, Sen. John McCain said Sunday, blaming President Obama for embracing a “feckless” foreign policy and punting tough decisions until after the fall election.

It was a particularly sharp rebuke even for Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, who, as a longtime critic of Mr. Obama’s war strategy, hasn’t pulled many punches. Since Mr. McCain is the top GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, his viewpoint on complex world events often finds its way into Republican election-year talking points.

“This administration has a feckless foreign policy which abandons American leadership,” Mr. McCain told “Fox News Sunday.”

“What the conclusion you can draw is that this president wants to kick the can down the road on all of these issues until after the election … it’s really an abdication of everything that America stands for and believes in,” he later added.

The White House called for Mr. Assad’s ouster as recently as Saturday, when it blamed the Syrian government for killing more than 90 people, including 32 children, following peaceful protests. National Security Council spokeswoman Erin Pelton said the attack serves as a “vile testament to an illegitimate regime.” The Syrian government has denied responsibility.

Earlier this month at the meeting of leading industrial nations at Camp David, White House officials said they had hoped Russia could use some of its sway to halt the bloody crackdown and raised the possibility of modeling a regime change in Syria after Yemen. Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down in February as part of a U.S.-backed power transfer deal that gave him immunity from prosecution in return for relinquishing power.

According to U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev “did not dispute the fact that there needs to be a process of political transition” in Syria.

“I think the question is, just how does that manifest itself?” Mr. Rhodes told reporters at a May 19 press conference.

The United States wants to avoid escalating a confrontation with Moscow over Syria but wants Mr. Medvedev to hear the depth of international outrage. Specifically, the U.S. wants to prevent another Security Council showdown in which Russia might feel it has to veto any anti-Assad proposals on principle and the U.S. would lose that avenue as a practical alternative. Moscow and Beijing already twice have shielded Syria from U.N. sanctions over the crackdown.

According to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal diplomacy, the U.S. focus is now on getting Russia to tolerate a “political transition” in Syria similar to that in Yemen.

But Mr. McCain said the U.S. would be foolish to rely on Russia, a main supplier of arms to the Syrian military.

“Here we are a year later and 10,000 killed,” he said, referring to the onset of protests across the Arab world. And “our hopes rest on convincing (Russia) to ease out Assad, comparing it to Yemen, which there is no comparison. It’s really just a sad story.”

Associated Press writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

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