NEW YORK — Senator John McCain, back from a surprise trip to Syria, offered his bleakest assessment yet of the hostilities there, saying on Sunday that opposition fighters were being “massacred” and that President Bashar Assad was beginning to tighten his grip on power.
“Remember all this talk we’ve heard for the last year or two — it’s inevitable that Bashar Assad will fall?” McCain, a Republican from Arizona, asked during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Well, I think we can’t make that statement today.”
Syrian rebels and Hezbollah guerrillas battled Sunday in their worst clashes yet inside Lebanon, a new sign that the civil war in Syria is increasingly destabilizing its fragile neighbor.
Also Sunday, Syria’s foreign minister rebuffed an appeal by the United Nations and the Red Cross to let humanitarian aid reach thousands of civilians trapped in the rebel-held town of Qusair, under attack by Assad’s forces for the past three weeks. The Red Cross said many of the wounded were not receiving essential medical care.
McCain, long one of the most outspoken voices in Washington for a forceful intervention in the Syrian war, visited there early last week to meet with the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime.
He was the first US senator to meet with the rebels there since fighting began two years ago. And on Sunday, he described what he said was a fast-deteriorating scene.
“We are seeing, unfortunately, a battlefield situation where Bashar Assad now has the upper hand, and it’s tragic, while we sit by and watch,” he said.
As he has done repeatedly, McCain called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria and the creation of safe zones for rebels and refugees.
But the Obama administration remains wary of inserting itself too directly into a complicated Middle Eastern conflict alongside uncertain allies and against increasingly well-armed forces. So far, the United States has given the rebels only nonlethal material support. Assad has benefited, meanwhile, from growing outside military support and weapons shipments.
McCain cast skepticism on the notion that anything short of military support could turn the table. Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to arrange peace talks between the Assad government and opposition leaders in Geneva, but no date has been set.
“Hezbollah has now invaded, the Iranians are there, Russia is pouring weapons in, and anybody that believes that Bashar Assad is going to go to a conference in Geneva when he’s prevailing on the battlefield — it’s just ludicrous,” McCain said.
A senior Democratic senator, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, agreed on the CBS program that Assad’s forces had “regrouped,” adding, “He’s been able to reconstitute his forces.”
But like President Obama, Reed insisted that “this calls for ultimately a political solution.” While the United States should not take any options off the table, the country should focus on achieving a political arrangement in Geneva, said Reed, who like McCain is a member of the Armed Services Committee.
McCain warned that the fighting could spread.
“It’s a slaughter, and the refugee camps are full, the Jordanians cannot last under the present situation, Lebanon is more and more tilting into chaos,” he said. “This has every likelihood of turning into a regional conflict.”
Hezbollah’s involvement in the battle over strategic Qusair has also raised tensions with Syrian rebels and with Sunnis in Lebanon who support the rebels.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has linked his militia’s fate to the survival of Assad’s regime, but pledged in a televised speech last month that he would keep the battle out of Lebanon.
Syrian activists reported new fighting in Qusair, about 6 miles from the Lebanese border. Local activist Hadi Abdullah reported heavy shelling and air strikes by Assad’s regime on the town Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least three killed in Qusair Sunday.
An Assad victory in Qusair would solidify his control over the central province of Homs, linking the capital Damascus with the Alawite strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon.