- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2012

Russia has dispatched two warships and a unit of marines to secure its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, and it is delivering anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to help Syrian President Bashar Assad defend his regime, Sen. John McCain said Monday.

“Clearly, this is not a fair fight,” Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

Russia’s Interfax news agency, quoting an unidentified Russian naval source, first reported on Monday that the warships were “preparing for a non-routine departure” for Tartus.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week accused Russia of sending helicopter gunships to the Assad regime, engaging in a war of words over the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia says it has only refurbished and returned helicopters it sold to Syria a year ago.

“Whether these are new helicopters or old ones that Assad sent to Russia to be refurbished and have the blood washed off of them is a distinction without a difference,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. McCain also criticized the Obama administration for what he said was its failure to lead on Syria.

“To say they are ‘leading from behind’ is too generous,” he said. “That suggests they are leading. They are just behind.”

President Obama is likely to discuss the situation in Syria when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Mexico on Monday.

Russia is unlikely to ever support a policy of regime change in Syria,” Mr. McCain said.

Over the weekend, the United Nations announced it was halting monitoring operations in Syria because of the worsening security situation in the country.

More than 14,000 people have died since the start of the anti-Assad uprising 15 months ago, according to activists.

Assad appears to be accelerating his fight to the finish,” said Mr. McCain, adding that the international community is nearing a “major point of decision.”

Former U.N. Secretary-General “Kofi Annan’s plan, which does not even call for Assad to go, has been a failure for months,” Mr. McCain said.

The senator proposed multilateral action in Syria, which would include working closely with Arab and European allies, especially Turkey, and not require putting U.S. boots on the ground.

Mr. McCain and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, visited a camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey in April.

“I have seen my share of suffering and death, but the stories that those Syrians told still haunt me — men who had lost all of their children, women and girls who had been gang-raped, children who had been tortured,” Mr. McCain said.

Syrian army defectors told the visiting senators that their officers urged them to kill, rape and torture as a tactic of terror and intimidation.

Mr. McCain warned of the consequences of delaying international intervention in Syria.

“The longer this conflict drags on, the more radicalized it becomes, and the more it turns into a sectarian civil war with an escalating spiral of violence that Syrians alone cannot stop,” he said.

“If we fail to act, the consequences are clear. Syria will become a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, threatening both our ally Israel and our NATO ally Turkey,” he added.

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