McCain and Graham: Send Arms to Syrian Opposition; Palmyra Under Siege
Two Republican Senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have called for the U.S. to arm the Syrian opposition on the grounds that its members “deserved to be armed” and that doing so would help the U.S. in its efforts to weaken Iran. Both senators are on the Senate Armed Services Committee and made their comments while on a visit to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
As the New York Times notes, Iran provides Syria with financial and military support and has been a staunch support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad during the nearly year-long bloody conflict. Assad belongs to the Alawites, a Shi’ite Muslim sect that is a minority in predominantly Sunni Syria. McCain also pointed out that Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, has been providing Syria with arms. The U.S. would not, he said, have to send the weapons directly but could so do through “third world countries” and the Arab League.
If the U.S. were to send arms to the Syrian opposition, it would put itself at the forefront of efforts to remove Assad from power and set the U.S. even more at odds with Russia and China. Two weeks ago, both countries vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for Assad to step down. China has expressed its continued support for Assad; on Saturday, Chinese deputy foreign minister Zhai Jun met with the Syrian president and said that, while “deeply concerned by the escalating crisis he believed that “the Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability.” China, which has met with three moderate figures of the Syrian opposition, is backing Assad’s call for a February 26 referendum on a draft of the country’s constitution that calls for an end to five decades of one-party rule under the Ba’ath Party.
Violence Rages Over the Weekend; Egypt Withdraws Ambassador
Shortly after Zhai’s meeting with Assad, Syria forces fired on mourners at a funeral for three men killed on Friday in the Damascus suburb of Douma; at least one person was killed and, according to the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union, four wounded including a woman who was shot in the head. Thousands reportedly protested in Damascus on Saturday, despite scattered gunfire. Activists report that the Syrian army has been laying siege to the ancient city of Palmyra and has been shooting at anything that moves from the historical ruins, which are a UNESCO heritage site dating back to Roman times and, prior to the start of the uprising in March of 2011, a key tourist attraction.
Also on Saturday, two Iranian warships docked at the Syrian port city of Tartus. Russia maintains a naval station there that is its only military installation outside its own territories.
Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Syria on Sunday. Ambassador Shukri Ismael will now remain in Cairo until further notice, a significant decision: Syria and Egypt shared the same flag for three years until 1961. A reduced diplomatic staff will remain in Damascus. Tunisia, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations have already reduced diplomatic ties to Syria.
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Photo of the theatre in Palmyra by isawnyu