Senator John McCain was uncharacteristically subdued in a key note address yesterday to the Middle East Institute/Institute of Turkish Studies conference on Turkey.  He prodded President Obama to be more outspoken in denouncing the Assad regime and advocated a “safe zone” inside Syria along the Turkish border, but only in response to a question. He discounted the likelihood of NATO action, which the Europeans oppose, and suggested that the U.S. and Turkey should form the core of a coalition of the willing to support the Syrian opposition with arms and training.

The Senator opened with a denunciation of the Syrian downing of a Turkish jet, calling it an unnecessary and unacceptable act of aggression.  But then he turned quickly to focus on Turkey’s positive evolution into a more inclusive and representative democracy experiencing strong economic growth. He also noted troubling developments:  Turkey’s jailing of journalists, its prosecutions of army officers and the deterioration of its relations with Israel.

The U.S., McCain said, should give wholehearted military and intelligence support to Turkey in its fight against Kurdish terrorists (the PKK). But the bilateral relationship should broaden its focus to free trade, military modernization, missile defense and strategic cooperation in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and other contexts where democracy, human rights and rule of law are at stake.  Turkey, he said, sets a standard for democracy in Muslim countries and is an attractive example to many throughout the Muslim world.

McCain appealed for stronger U.S. leadership  in speaking up for the people of Syria and countering Russian and Iranian support to the Assad regime, which includes both arms and personnel.  A “safe zone” on the Turkish/Syrian border would provide the fragmented and unreliable opposition with a place where it could coalesce.  This would require intervention from the air (as in Bosnia and Kosovo) but not, he thought, boots on the ground (forgetting of course that on the “day after” U.S. troops were needed in both Bosnia and Kosovo).  Asked about the Annan peace plan that provides for a peaceful transition, McCain reacted with disdain, saying that Bashar al Assad would have to be forced out.

The current situation, McCain emphasized, is not acceptable.  Sectarian violence is on the increase, as is exploitation of the situation by extremists.  It will only get worse if the U.S. fails to lead.  It is not even leading from behind at this point.  It is not enough for the White House to say that Bashar al Assad’s fall is inevitable.  We have to make it happen.

McCain acknowledged American war weariness but underlined the moral imperative to speak out and to act.  Absent from his remarks was consideration of the impact of American and Turkish air attacks to create a “safe zone” on Russian support for the P5+1 negotiations with Iranian on its nuclear program and on the Northern Distribution Network that supplies NATO troops in Afghanistan.  Those who think Afghanistan and Iran should have priority in American foreign policy won’t go along with the Senator, almost no matter what Bashar al Assad does to his own people.  A lot of what people think should be done in Syria depends on what your priorities are.