Taking out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is vital to U.S. national security, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued Tuesday.
Speaking on CNN, Graham said Thursday’s cruise-missile strike on a Syrian air base was a good first step to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people. But he said President Donald Trump must do much more.
“What I want the president to do is connect Syria to American national-security interests.”
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“What I want the president to do is connect Syria to American national-security interests,” he said. “It is in our national-security interests that Assad not stay in power because he’s a puppet of the Iranians. The ayatollahs very much are the enemy of the regime and the United States.”
Critics of intervention note that Syria never has attacked the United States and lacks the capacity to even do so. What’s more, they argue, trying to achieve regime change militarily risks a wider war with Syrian ally Russia and could destabilize the region even further — not to mention draining America of blood and treasure.
But Graham made the case that leaving Assad in power would strengthen terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, even though his forces are fighting those very organizations.
“He’s a recruiting took for al-Qaida and ISIL,” he said. “Sunni extremists would love Assad to stay in power because they could recruit in perpetuity.”
Graham did not explain how that view aligns with the fact that Sunni extremists are the sworn enemy of Shiite Muslims, who dominate Iran. He also did not explain how the United States could ensure that Assad’s replacement would be pro-American. He called for redoubling efforts to train the Free Syrian Army, even though past efforts at that have been a failure.
Graham also downplayed concerns that a wider conflict could draw the United States into a war with Russia.
“If you want to reset Syria, you’re going to have to tell Russia and Iran, ‘You’re no longer going to be able to help Assad kill the opposition without pushback,'” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin would fold in such a showdown, Graham confidently predicted.
“If you’re aggressive, I think he begins to retreat, because he’s on the wrong side of what’s happening in Syria,” he said.
Graham also said he has no doubt that Russia knew about Syria’s chemical weapons attack before it occurred, although he offered no evidence. He noted that the Russian military was operating out of the same base from which U.S. officials say Syria launched the attack.
“They’re either incredibly incompetent, or they’re complicit,” he said.
Graham praised this week’s statement by White House press secretary Sean Spicer — from which administration officials later retreated — that Syria’s use of barrel bombs falls into the same category as chemical weapons. Such a declaration virtually would guarantee a deep and long-running U.S. role in Syria, since such weapons are commonplace.
Graham called the statement “long overdue,” adding, “It’s not about how you kill the babies. It’s the fact that you slaughter innocent people.”
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At least the prospect of war has persuaded Graham to back off his relentless criticism of Trump. He had been critical that the administration was not tough enough on Putin. But he noted that Putin refused to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his trip to Moscow on Tuesday.
“The fact that he won’t meet with Tillerson tells me Trump did the right thing,” he said.
Then again, praise from Graham might cause Trump’s populist base to reach the opposite conclusion.