DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On a Friday morning, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Earlier this week, President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a game changer. And although there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used, the president insists he needs all the facts before taking further action - the who, the how, the when.
Recent polls suggest the American public is reluctant to see the U.S. get involved militarily, yet some members of Congress are calling for military intervention. Republican Senator John McCain has been one of the most prominent voices. And MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne reached McCain at his office in Phoenix yesterday.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, Senator McCain, you have said chemical weapons are not your red line. You said that 70,000 Syrians have died with the Assad regime using conventional weapons. Still, let me put this to you. We've been down this road before in Iraq - what seemed like solid intelligence about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be not real. What makes you trust that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime?
MCCAIN: Well, first of all, a chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee Center, Diane Feinstein, is convinced of that. The Israeli intelligence has corroborated that, the British intelligence. But setting that aside, Bashar al Assad has viewed the red line on chemical weapons as a green light to do anything short of that.
It started with light weapons and then went heavier weapons and now SCUD missiles, to the point where basically anything goes with Bashar al-Assad.
MONTAGNE: What would you have the U.S. do?
MCCAIN: Well, we can take out his assets through long-range cruise missiles. We can establish a no fly zone, a safe zone, which would give them an area where they could arm, train, equip and hopefully stem the tide of the influence of these jihadists who are flowing in from everywhere across the Middle East, and thereby changing the equation.
MONTAGNE: But let's talk about enforcing what amounts to a no fly zone.
MONTAGNE: How do you do that? I mean Syria is well known for having a modern air force and a robust air defense system.
MCCAIN: Well, I assure that they've only got a handful of air fields that they are using. I can assure you they won't fly. You know, one of the more curious things that's happened is that both, now, General Clapper, the head of DNI, and General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, well, they recommended a year ago that we should supply arms to the resistance.
But now they're not sure who it could go to. Well, two questions. Wasn't it a terrific mistake, then, of not acting a year ago? And second of all, we say we are providing humanitarian aid and some non-lethal aid. You mean we know who to provide the non-lethal aid to, but we don't know who to provide the arms to?
You know, one thing I've found, as much as I love and respect the military, the military can always find a reason not to do something if they don't want to do it.
MONTAGNE: We can't, though, go back, regardless of whether it would've been better a year ago or a year and a half ago. We can't go back. So today, even if you can ensure that the heavy weaponry is going into what the U.S. would call the right hands, how do you ensure that those weapons eventually don't fall into the hands of radicals? And I'm thinking of Libya.
The U.S. and its allies managed to rid Libya of Gadhafi. It turns out that massive amounts of weapons flowed down into Mali and into the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida. How do you stop that sort of circulation from emerging from arming rebels in Syria?
MCCAIN: Well, just on Libya very quickly, it's the quote "light footprint." The Libyans wanted help in securing the weapons caches, they couldn't get at. If we had acted much more proactively we could've helped them. But in the case of Syria, every day it gets worse. There's approximately 100,000 people fighting in Syria. About 6,000 or more are these jihadists.
But having said that, they're the best fighters, they're the best trained, and the best experienced. And they're not afraid to die. So every day that goes by that we don't provide the assistance then the most difficult and complicated the situation will be once Bashar al-Assad leaves. But at the present situation, there is stalemate for the months to come.
MONTAGNE: Arizona Senator John McCain, speaking to us from his office in Phoenix. Thank you, Senator, for joining us.
MCCAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.