McCain made his comments about Syria while speaking to the  American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Story highlights

"Give them a chance to have a fair fight," McCain says

The Republican accuses the Obama administration of failing to lead

"They are just behind," he says

Obama is meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit

Washington CNN  — 

Sen. John McCain called Monday for the United States to lead a military coalition to help the Syrian opposition rid the country of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Syrian opposition needs to know that the United States stands with them and that we are willing to take risks to support them when they need it the most,” the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Inaction denies us the opportunity to have influence with forces in Syria who will one day inherit the country, ceding that to foreign states that may not always share our values.”

McCain took aim at what he said is the Obama administration’s toothless policy of calling for al-Assad to step aside.

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

The Obama administration and much of the rest of the world have put their hopes of ending the 15 months of bloodshed on a peace plan put forth by U.N. and Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan. But that has failed to achieve results.

The Republican senator from Arizona accused the administration, “in its desperation,” of now appearing to be placing its hopes on persuading the Russian government to push al-Assad from power. President Obama was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico.

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

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The opposition, without help from the United States, has recently improved its military abilities and appears to be well enough organized to make use of outside support, he said.

Though some foreign military assistance appears to be reaching the opposition, it is not enough to be decisive, and may just prolong the crisis, which could prove detrimental, McCain said. “Nearly every Syrian I speak with tells me the same thing: the longer this conflict drags on, the more radicalized it becomes and the more it turns into an escalating civil war.”

Failure to act could result in Syria becoming a failed state, riven by extremist violence and sectarian conflict, he said.

McCain said any military aid should not include U.S. ground forces, but should include military might from allies of the United States, such as European and Arab countries.

Already, some analysts say that opposition forces may be creating some areas of de facto control, along the border with Turkey and in eastern Syria, McCain said. One option would be for the opposition to declare those areas liberated, then call for external support in defending them, he said.

“Once defended, these safe havens could become platforms, staging areas for armed opposition groups,” he said.

McCain rejected characterizations of the current state of affairs inside Syria as a civil war. “It’s not a civil war because all the military strength is on one side, and not the other,” he said. “At least we ought to give them a chance to have a fair fight.”
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