WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain became the first senator to call for airstrikes against Syria, saying on Monday that President Obama has taken too soft a stand against President Bashar Assad and his brutal crackdown on his own people.
McCain said the Syrian government’s slaughter of unarmed civilians has probably resulted in war crimes and that its neighbors in the region will intervene militarily, with or without the United States.
In a speech from the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican said the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to force out Assad and his loyalists.
“The only realistic way to do so is with foreign air power,’’ McCain concluded. “The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on Assad’s forces.’’
It was a marked change from McCain’s remarks last month, when he said the United States should find ways to help supply the opposition fighters and provide technical assistance, medical care, and refugee havens.
But in his remarks Monday, McCain declared it was time to step up militarily and that the United States should lead the effort with direct military action. The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain was one of the first to call for arming the rebels. That idea has divided members of Congress and drawn concern from the administration about further militarization of Syria.
The latest McCain proposal is also expected to encounter resistance from war-weary lawmakers who opposed the operation in Libya last year.
“The president must state unequivocally that under no circumstances will Assad be allowed to finish what he started,’’ McCain said in his Senate speech. The Obama administration, he added, should make it clear that “the United States is prepared to use the full weight of our air power to make it so.’’
Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring Lebanon on Monday said they feared they would be slaughtered in their homes as government forces hunted down opponents in Homs, an opposition stronghold.
The United Nations refugee agency said Monday that as many as 2,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon over the last two days to flee the violence in their country. In the Lebanese border village of Qaa, families with small children came carrying only plastic bags filled with a few belongings.
“We fled the shelling and the strikes,’’ said Hassana Abu Firas. She came with two families who had fled government shelling of their town, Al-Qusair, about 14 miles away. The town is in Homs Province, where the government has been waging a brutal offensive for the past month.
“What are we supposed to do? People are sitting in their homes and they are hitting us with tanks,’’ Firas said. “Those who can flee, do. Those who can’t will die sitting down.’’
Lebanese security officials say more than 10,000 Syrians are believed to be in the country. One official said as many as 3,000 are believed to have crossed in recent days.