Vice President Joe Biden made it clear Monday that the U.S. has no plans to commit combat troops to support the rebels in the civil war in Syria.
Speaking before members of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Biden said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown he has the same disregard for human life as his father before him by “engaging in brutal murder of his own citizens.”
“Our position on that tragedy could not be clearer. Assad must go,” Biden said. “But we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.”
Biden words were in stark contrast to those of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spoke to the AIPAC crowd as part of a panel before the vice president spoke. McCain used the opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for not taking a harder line against Assad and supporting the opposition.
“We’ve allowed Basher Assad to massacre 70- 80,000 people, and we’ve done nothing about it,” McCain said. Arms going into the country from Iran and Gulf Arab states are going into the hands of the wrong groups, he said.
“Humanitarian aid doesn’t get it,” he said. “It’s very interesting, you go into the refugee camps and the leader says, ‘Senator McCain, these young children you see in this camp, they will take revenge on those who refuse to help them.’ “
The administration has been reluctant to arm the rebels, saying it’s not clear who they should be backing. It s a situation similar to that of Libya, where the U.S. also held back from arming rebels fighting to overthrow longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Then, as now, McCain and other members of the Republican Party criticized Obama for not arming the rebels. When the administration did get involved with other NATO forces to support the fighters, it was largely in a supportive role.
Biden said on Monday that the administration’s focus in Syria is on backing a legitimate opposition that’s committed to a peaceful Syria and peaceful region.
“And because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons,” he said.
Biden and McCain also spoke about Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli leaders have periodically claimed Iran was a year or so away from having a nuclear bomb as far back as the early 1990s.
For at least a year, however, U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have said there is no evidence Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
Before the AIPAC gathering on Monday, though, the message from Biden and McCain was tough and threatening.
McCain said that in Iran “the centrifuges are spinning … they’re on a clear path of making a nuclear weapon.”
“I would hope that reelection would motivate [President Obama] to work more closely with the Israeli government and take concerted action if that action is necessary.”
Such an action is a possibility, Biden said.
“We have a shared strategic commitment [with Israel],” he said. “It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period. End of discussion. Prevent -- not contain – prevent … We are not looking for war. We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table.”