The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria through air strikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, U.S. Senator John McCain said on Monday.
“The ultimate goal of air strikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad,” McCain, an influential Republican, said in remarks on the Senate floor.
McCain has previously called for efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. But he said on Monday the help Syrian rebels needed most urgently was “relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in the many cities that are still contested” in Syria.
The battered city of Homs is “lost for now,” but other cities are not, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee said.
The Obama administration has thus far stressed seeking a political solution to the crisis. Last month, the White House said it did not rule out “additional measures” if a political solution turned out to be impossible.
“The time has come for a new policy,” said McCain, who lost the race for the White House to Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. “Assad needs to know that he will not win.”
“These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance - including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water and medical supplies,” said McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He said the safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, “likely with the assistance of foreign partners.”
While there would not be a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria because of Russian and Chinese opposition, McCain said, the United States should seek the active involvement of key Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, and NATO allies such as Turkey.
Humanitarian chief to visit
Meanwhile on the ground, Syrian forces bombarded the city of Rastan for a second day running, monitors said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, meanwhile, said Damascus had finally approved a visit, to take place from Wednesday to Friday, following protests over President Bashar al-Assad's refusal to let her in.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday that it had distributed food and other aid to some neighborhoods of the battered Syrian city of Homs but could not get clearance from authorities to enter the hardest-hit district of Baba Amr.
The government was still blocking its access to the former rebel bastion, where civilians remain trapped in freezing temperatures in need of food, water and medical care, Yves Daccord, the ICRC director-general, said.
Negotiations continued with the military and government as ICRC aid workers and volunteers and ambulances from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reached two neighborhoods of Homs to which many families from Baba Amr had fled, a spokesman said.
Daccord, in an interview with Swiss Radio and Television (RTS), said about its stalled access to Baba Amr: “At the moment we are blocked by the Syrian army and government.”
Rastan, which activists expect to be the next target of a drive by regime forces to expel rebels who have regrouped from Homs, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, came under renewed shelling, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It said seven civilians, including four children, were killed on Sunday in shelling of the city, which like Homs straddles the main highway linking Damascus to the north.
“What's happening in Rastan is exactly what happened in Baba Amr: a siege, artillery fire and rockets,” said Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Homs of the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
Security forces also launched an offensive in Yabrud in the Damascus region, the Britain-based Observatory said, adding that at least six people, including two teenagers, were killed nationwide on Monday.
The United Nations says over 7,500 civilians have died in Syria’s nearly year-long crackdown on protests against Assad’s government.