Thune, like McCain, favors supporting rebels in Syria

By David Lias

Sen. John Thune, R-SD, quietly laughed Tuesday morning, when asked about the surprise visit his colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, paid to Syria on Monday.

“John makes some trips over there … he goes places that most people don’t get access to,” Thune said.

He also, however, voiced support for a policy that appears to contain guidelines that McCain believes the U.S. should follow concerning Syria.

“He (McCain) is very passionate about getting a good outcome there,” Thune said.

Sen. Thune was in Vermillion Tuesday to address the morning session of Girls State, which is meeting this week on the University of South Dakota campus.

According to news reports, McCain quietly slipped into Syria for a meeting with anti-government fighters Monday. The visit took place amid meetings in Paris involving efforts to secure participation of Syria’s fractured opposition in an international peace conference in Geneva.

McCain, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, favors providing arms to rebel forces in Syria and creation of a no-fly zone. He has stopped short of backing U.S. ground troops in Syria.

“I think he (McCain) really wants to help the people who are leading the resistance in Syria, and I’ve always believed, as a matter of principle, that it makes more sense for us to arm and support the resistance than it does for us to put troops on the ground, to put our men and women in uniform in a place like that,” Thune told the Vermillion Plain Talk Tuesday morning. “If we can give the necessary equipment, training and weapon systems, that’s the best way to shape and influence an outcome in an area in a direction that we would like to see it go.”

There are no easy options when formulating U.S. foreign policy towards Syria, he added.

“In this case, it’s gotten more complicated because as time has passed the elements of the opposition have changed. Now you’ve got al-Qaeda in there, of course, Hezbollah is in there, and the Iranians are in there on the side of (Syrian President Bashar) Assad and the regime,” Thune said. “But, there are a lot of folks in the opposition now, so it’s hard to know who you are arming. Who are you giving arms to, and what is there objective and their purpose?

“It was easier six months ago; it was easier a year ago, but I think the thing is so muddled now that it’s really hard to determine who to support, who to arm,” he said.

Thune hopes that, eventually, the U.S. can lend its support to an opposition group in Syria “that is aligned with the forces of democracy and freedom that want to make a difference for human rights in that region.”

The South Dakota senator also said there likely will be a spirited discussion when Congress reconvenes concerning the use of drones against terrorist targets.

In a speech last week, President Barack Obama defended the use of drones as an alternative to military intervention. He called drones the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent human life. The president admitted that drone strikes raise troubling legal questions. He even acknowledged that critics of drone strikes had a point, but he insisted that drone strikes continue, albeit with stronger safeguards and more transparency.

“I think there is going to be a pretty robust discussion about it. There already has been, but the president himself, in his speech, has sort of pulled back a little bit, and looked at redefining the parameters for use of drones from now requiring an imminent, continuing threat to the U.S. as opposed to a significant threat,” Thune said. “It’s a different standard that he is trying to put into place, and Congress, obviously, is very concerned about collateral damage, civilian casualties, and how the program is being used and what it is attempting to accomplish.”

The senator said he welcomes increased dialogue and scrutiny of this issue in Congress.

“This is an element of our foreign policy, it’s an element of our military power, and we need to make sure that we’re using those elements of our military power in a way that accomplish objectives that are vital to America’s national security interests,” he said. “We must also do it in a way that minimizes collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

On the domestic front, Thune held little hope for Congress finding a solution to federal fiscal issues, including a way to end the budget sequester, anytime soon.

“If there was something to replace the sequester, to turn it off, if we could figure out how to proportion the reductions of spending elsewhere in the budget, it could happen,” he said. “Democrats in the Congress want to see tax increases used to turn off the sequester. It looks to me right now that it (ending the sequester) could be very hard.”

The best that Congress may be able to do, he added, is be more flexible when it comes to formulating guidelines for devoting funds to federal programs in the future.

“I guess the best thing I think we can hope for in the short term is that when Congress does appropriation bills this year that they provide the optimum amount of flexibility so that agencies that are dealing with the sequester can move funds around,” Thune said. “The sequester, unfortunately, was pretty prescriptive in how it was designed and so I think if we’re going to continue to have these cuts in place, let ‘s allow the agencies that have to implement them to do it in a way that’s rational and makes sense.”

Compromise among political leaders in the nation’s capital, the senator noted, continues to be a difficult process.

“It’s hard. We’re in a place right now where there are big differences in opinion about what’s the best answer, what’s the best solution,” he said. “Eventually, I think, forces will work to bring that about, but at least for right now, both sides are sort of dug in.”

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