McCain: Assad has "upper hand" in Syrian civil war

McCain: Assad has the upper hand in Syria
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says embattled Syrian President Bashar al Assad has the upper hand thanks to "increased weapons, Hezbollah fighters" and other outside help.

(CBS News) As the Syrian civil war rages on, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday on "Face the Nation," what's unfolding is "unfortunately a battlefield situation where [President] Bashar Assad now has the upper hand - and it's tragic - while we sit by and watch."

Last week McCain secretly visited the war-torn country to meet with some of the rebel forces taking on Assad, and stepped up his pressure on President Obama to provide them with arms. On Sunday, he called the opposition "very tough - they're battle-hardened. They're very dedicated. They are not al Qaeda; they are not extremists."

"We have some very strong and good people who are fighting for freedom and are being massacred as we speak," McCain said. "And remember all this talk we've had in the past year or two: It's inevitable that Bashar Assad will fall? Well I think we can't make that statement today.

"... Hezbollah has now invaded, the Iranians are there, Russia is pouring weapons in," he went on. "And anyone that believes that Bashar Assad is going to go to a conference in Geneva when he is prevailing on the battlefield, it's just ludicrous to assume that."

The administration has shied away from escalating its response to the ongoing violence in Syria, despitehotly debated evidence that chemical weapons were used there in the past few months. Mr. Obama has insisted he will not act on anything less than categorical evidence, making repeated allusions to the inaccurate information that drew the United States into the Iraq War.

American death, Russian missile deepen Syrian crisis
U.S., Germany warn Russia: Don't send Assad missiles
Russia to sell MiG jet fighters to Syria, jet maker says

McCain - who initially harbored his own set of cautions about U.S. military intervention in Syria - said Assad's "upper hand" is thanks to "increased weapons, thanks to Hezbollah fighters, thanks to Shia coming in from Iraq, [Russia] pouring weapons in," and the "Iranian revolutionary guard." U.S. involvement, he argued, should center on establishing a safe zone for the rebels.

"We need to give them a no-fly zone," McCain said. "The Israelis have shown us we can take out their facilities from a distance, that we don't have to risk our pilots. We can crater their runways, we can take out their air assets, we can provide them with a safe zone so that the Syrian opposition council outside Syria can come into Syria and coordinate with the military Gen. [Salem] Idris, and the militia military inside Syria.

"And we can establish that safe zone," he continued, "and I'm confident that we can prevail."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued later on the show that a no-fly zone "is not going to effectively deter the Assad regime - they can use artillery, they can use helicopter gunships."

"I think the issue is not a military issue; it's the organizational and institutional coherence of the opposition military forces," Reed said. "The key here is a political resolution. That's why the conference in Geneva is so critical, and it's critical that the Syrian opposition attend."

Reed said that while he agrees with McCain that Assad has "stabilized his position significantly" having been able to reconstitute his forces, "I don't think he has a decisive position where he can control all of Syria."

"I think my fear is that what you get is a fragmentation, what you get is a spillover into other areas," he continued. "In the long term, the resolution must come from political cooperation and cooperation from parties that to this point, particularly the Russians, have not been helpful. I don't think there's a major expectation that the Iranians will be constructive. And, in fact, you know, they see this as an existential sort of battle."

  • lindseyboerma.jpg
    Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for