Rice: U.S. can't "sit on the sidelines" in Syria

(CBS News) NEW YORK -- It's been more than two years since Syrians rose up against Bashar Assad; 80,000 people have died.

Assad's army, backed by Lebanese fighters, has been trying for weeks to take back the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border. The fighting is fierce. Sen. John McCain, just back from a secret visit to Syria, wants the U.S. to arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone on Assad's forces.

SCOTT PELLEY: Senator McCain says, "Arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone." What do you think?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, there is no doubt that it's time for the United States to make clear that it is going to engage in this effort to stop the difficult situation in Syria and to prevent its further spread. It's already spreading across the region. So the United States doesn't have an option of no action. A no-fly zone is an actual military operation. And the president of the United States is going to have to decide whether he is willing to apply American military power to this conflict. But a no-fly zone is clearly an option.

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PELLEY: Is it worth the possibility of the loss of American life in that operation?

RICE: Well, you have a situation now in which Syria is becoming the linchpin of a possibly exploding Middle East. When you have Iranian fighters in Syria, when you have Hezbollah in Syria, when you have the Syrian shelling the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, when you have the Israelis taking out Syrian installations because they fear for Israeli security, you have a very serious situation on your hands. And the United States really doesn't have an option to sit on the sidelines.

Watch: Sen. McCain says U.S. must give Syrian rebels a no-fly zone, below.

PELLEY: What's at stake?

RICE: What is at stake is really the Middle East state system as we know it. And what is at stake is a Middle East in which Iran and its allies are on the march into places like Lebanon, destabilizing Jordan and Iraq and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Now, the United States of America has got to be present in this. No other country has the potential, even, to change the dynamics on the ground. And to take the initiative in -- in the region.

PELLEY: Former Secretary of State in the Bush Administration, Condoleezza Rice, thanks for being with us.

RICE: Pleasure to be with you.

  • Scott Pelley

    Anchor and Managing Editor, "CBS Evening News;" Correspondent, "60 Minutes"

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