Arizona Sen. John McCain has endorsed setting up Patriot missile batteries to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria, which the Republican believes will be critical to quell the violence that has raged in the war-torn country for more than 20 months.
An inability for opposition fighters to organize, train and equip is the driving force behind the protracted fighting in Syria, McCain said while speaking at a Foreign Policy Initiative forum Tuesday. The bloody conflict, including aerial strikes from the military loyal to the government, began during the Arab Spring revolts in early 2011.
Installing Patriot missiles in neighboring Turkey could provide rebels with the infrastructure they need to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime, says McCain, who is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a retired Navy fighter pilot.
"Pilots are not going to fly into certain death. I don't care how brave they are," he says. "You shoot down one or two of them, and they're not going to fly there again. They may like Bashar al-Assad, but they like to live a little more."
Syrian rebels have called on NATO to establish and enforce a no-fly zone, a tactic that helped opposition fighters in Libya. Some countries worry this could drag them into the Syrian conflict, but McCain says this can be accomplished without "boots on the ground."
"I guarantee you, the first Syrian aircraft we shot down, that would be the last one to fly over a no-fly zone," he says.
Aerial attacks by government forces have contributed to the climbing death toll in Syria, which by some accounts has exceeded 40,000 people. Rebel fighters seized a helicopter base outside Damascus this past weekend, activists say.
Turkey has solicited NATO countries for Patriot missiles it could use for intercepting ballistic missiles. NATO originally said it did not want to be drawn into the conflict, but would consider providing the missiles solely to protect Turkey, a fellow member nation.
Germany has signaled it would be willing to provide the missiles, but is privately asking Turkey to dial back the scope of the request, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Turkey is also still figuring out how to accommodate the more than 140,000 Syrian refugees that have crossed into the country, while also continuing tocombat an outlawed militant Kurdish group in the region. McCain said Tuesday that this fight will be the "next big challenge in the Middle East."
"Everyone I talk to in Turkey cries out for American leadership," McCain said when the moderator, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, asked if Turkey was ready for this responsibility. "It is missing now."
He pointed to America's lack of support in Libya following a successful uprising there, and linked it to the eventual killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
"We abandoned Libya with a light footprint," he says, adding the country needed help security the borders, establishing a police force and army and fighting militias. "We obviously paid a very heavy price for it. That's why the follow-up is so important."
The senator spoke at the forum with French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy, who said the political outcome in Syria is certain.
"The question is not 'Will Assad fall?'" he says. "The question is, 'Will Assad fall with the help of the West or without the help of the West?'"
If the West chooses to support opposition fighters, it will be able to "have the flag of our values high," earning the right to help with the political transition. Otherwise, the impending instability in the region will only spread to other nearby countries, Levy says.
Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.