By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said Tuesday the United States needs to step up its support for opposition rebels in war-torn Syria, arguing they need America’s help just as the U.S. needed France to win independence from Britain.
“We were a country that started as freedom fighters, working against a regime that we overthrew in order to establish our freedoms and liberty,” Whitehouse told WPRI.com after returning from the region. “And when we did that one of the great powers of the world then came to our aid, and we never forgot it.”
“Years later, when we were called to arms in Europe, we answered the call saying, ‘Lafayette, we are here’ – over a century later we had remembered,” he said, referring to an American battle cry during World War I. “Syria’s in a place like that now. There are freedom fighters fighting for their freedom against a brutal and murderous tyrant.”
Whitehouse’s comments came after he and U.S. Sen. John McCain led a bipartisan delegation of senators on a trip through the Middle East last week that included stops in Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
The conflict in Syria began in the spring of 2011, at a time when protests against autocratic governments erupted across the region with the Arab Spring movement. Whitehouse accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “indiscriminately” massacring and torturing civilians who oppose him, and said the regime could use chemical weapons.
“That can’t last,” he said. “Syria’s coming apart, and risks becoming a real power vacuum into which extremist and jihadi sentiment will pour if we don’t take action.”
While Whitehouse said he isn’t urging an invasion of Syria by American soldiers, he urged the Obama administration to do more to support the rebels there by providing small arms, ammunition, humanitarian aid and support for neighboring Jordan and Turkey. He also suggested the possibility of a no-fly zone policed by international allies.
Whitehouse isn’t known as a hawk on foreign policy; he was a vocal opponent of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war during his successful 2006 Senate campaign. But he said the Syria situation requires America involvement.
“We have really critical interests there,” Whitehouse said. “The Middle East is potentially a tinderbox, and Syria is potentially a spark that lights it off. Syria is a country with a lot of good traditions; it’s never been extremist ideologically, and I think it’s an important place to step back the ambitions of Iran in the region.”
“This is a chance for us to be the great power that comes to the relief of Syria so that 100 years from now we’re still remembered as the country that helped them get their freedom,” he added.
Whitehouse also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looked set to win re-election when voters in his country went to the polls on Tuesday. Israeli leaders are “very concerned” about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Whitehouse said, but they’re more concerned at the moment with the turmoil in Syria than with launching an attack on Iran.
“I think they’ve got a time window before the Iranian government could actually construct a nuclear weapon,” he said. “I don’t see [an Iran attack] as imminent, but I think they certainly want to leave it visibly on the table.”
Whitehouse said his visit to Afghanistan left him confident that the United States is on track to withdraw most of its troops by the end of 2014, as President Obama has promised, and impressed with the commitment of local forces there.
Whitehouse returned from his overseas trip in time to take his seat among the dignitaries for President Obama’s inauguration on Monday at the Capitol. He said the ceremony was surprisingly exciting for a re-election and had high praise for Obama. “I think the president gave one of his best speeches ever,” he said.
Whitehouse was particularly pleased that Obama spoke at length about tackling climate change, one of the senator’s major policy priorities and an issue on which he’s been critical of the president for acting too cautiously.
“As the Ocean State, Rhode Island has a lot at stake in the climate change discussion – Sandy was a forewarning of what we have at risk if we don’t get ahead of this climate problem,” he said.