McCain wants Tillerson to challenge Putin's Syria involvement on first trip to Moscow

WASHINGTON -- Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his first diplomatic trip to Moscow should question Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Kremlin’s political alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

When asked by “Face the Nation” moderator John Dickerson on Sunday what the secretary’s message to Putin should be in the shadow of Syria’s chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun and President Trump’s subsequent missile strike, McCain advocated sharp cynicism and accountability. 

“Well, first of all, he might want to express a little curiosity as to why -- Vladimir Putin assured America and the world that all of the chemical weapon stocks had been removed some years ago,” McCain said. “And when we had failed to act after Bashar Assad had crossed the red line, I think that’s the beginning.” 

In another piece of advice to Tillerson, McCain measured the world’s benefit from Putin’s complacency in Syria’s genocidal civil war, which dates back to 2011 and has accounted for nearly 400,000 deaths and millions more displaced. 

“We should point out to Vladimir Putin that this kind of activity -- aligning himself with a war criminal and a consummately violator of human rights like Bashar Assad, over time, is not going to be of benefit to Russia and the world,” he said.

McCain said he believes Putin will one day encounter a political reckoning for propping up the Syrian Army’s military and naval bases by lending resources such as fighter jets, battle tanks and ground troops in its campaign against rebels of the Assad regime. 

“I would point out to Vladimir Putin that what he is doing is committing horrific war crimes by, for example, targeting hospitals in Aleppo with precision weapons,” McCain said. “And over time, the world opinion and the people of this world will not stand for it.” 

The role of Iran in the ongoing conflict should not be forgotten, McCain added. 

“I would not leave Iran out of this equation. Obviously they are a major player and the major reason why Bashar Assad was able to stay in power.”   

Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, says the Iranian government has cushioned Damascus with billions of dollars in aid. Between 2012 and 2013, Iran has pumped more than $14 billion worth of economic and military aid into Syria, according to the center’s research. 

McCain said that a better relationship should eventually be forged with Russia. However, he said the relationship could only be achieved through “behavior that is in keeping with international standards.”     

McCain, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and was taken as a political prisoner, represents a moderate wing of the GOP, despite his hawkish tendencies. 

In 2013, when President Barack Obama unsuccessfully sought congressional approval for military strikes against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, McCain supported the strategy.