March 4, 2012 / 6:57 PM / 6 years ago

Senior U.S. senator calls for arming Syria rebels

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Republican U.S. senator on Sunday called for arming Syria’s rebels through the Arab League and suggested the imposition of “no drive” and “no fly” zones against Syrian military forces targeting the opposition.

Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican voice on international policy, also said he was joining with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal to push a Senate resolution calling on the United Nations to declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal.

Both senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We need more international pressure,” Graham told the program “Fox News Sunday.” “We need to help the rebels militarily, economically, and let Assad know that he is an international outlaw and be held accountable.”

“I think the Arab League would be a good vehicle to provide military assistance to the opposition forces and we should consider that. We should consider (a) ‘no drive, no fly’ zone, too, pretty quickly,” Graham added.

Such zones in the past have been used to limit the movements of air and ground forces in a given country.

U.S. officials have stressed they do not want to play a military role in Syria. In an 11-month crackdown on protests against Assad’s rule, Syrian troops and tanks have attacked opposition strongholds, killing thousands of people.

Graham suggested that the international community should use a similar approach to support Syria’s opposition as was used by NATO in buttressing the rebels who eventually toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year.

“I think the Libyan model could serve us well,” Graham said, although he did not lay out specifics for a U.S. role.

President Barack Obama, facing re-election in November, has steered away from deeper involvement in Syria. Western powers are opposed to military intervention and struggle to step up support to the Syrian opposition because of concerns over sectarian divisions.

Blumenthal, speaking on the same program, also pointed to last year’s Libya intervention as how to deal with Syria.

Referring to the U.S. Congress, Blumenthal said, “There is very strong support for the kinds of initiatives that we saw in Libya. And Libya is a model for how we can aid rebels.”

“But let me emphasize ... no American troops - none. No American troops on the ground, in direct aid, that will bolster that opposition,” Blumenthal added.

At a gathering of foreign ministers from more than 50 countries in Tunis on February 24, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad and his backers inside Syria and abroad that they will be held to account for the crackdown on opponents and a humanitarian catastrophe in his country.

There also has been little international appetite for military intervention in Syria.

Blumenthal said Clinton was doing a very good job of bringing together the world community, including the Arab League, in support of aid to Syria’s opposition.

“That aid can be technical assistance, communications equipments, humanitarian aid, financial support, and, if possible, arms that would go indirectly. There are means to do it. But it should be under the auspices of the international community, as Secretary Clinton is endeavoring to do,” Blumenthal said.

Reporting By Will Dunham; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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