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McCain calls for Syria airstrikes

A leading Republican senator has urged the United States to launch airstrikes against Syrian president Bashar Assad's regime to force him out of power - a call for dramatic military intervention against the growing violence that was not supported by the Obama administration or its European or Arab partners.

The statement of Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election, on the Senate floor came as the US and European governments pleaded for Russia's Vladimir Putin to rethink his anti-interventionist stance on Syria, in what appeared to be an increasingly desperate effort for consensus among world powers to stop a crackdown that has killed more than 7,500 people.

Hundreds have fled to neighbouring Lebanon fearing they would be massacred in their homes.

But the trans-Atlantic calls for Russia to abandon its opposition to strong UN action were delivered at a curious time - a day after Mr Putin showed his strength by resoundingly winning re-election to the position he held from 2000 to 2008. Even the modest aim of gaining Russian support for a humanitarian strategy in Syria faced renewed resistance on Monday - showing just how limited the diplomatic options were despite the continuing violence.

Mr McCain's strategy would be far more direct, though it is unclear how popular it would be. His statement was as much a critique of President Barack Obama as a rallying call for an international military campaign, accusing the president of being too soft on Mr Assad.

Mr McCain and his party's senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the US should change policy by arming Syria's rebels and spearheading a military effort to support them. "The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," Mr McCain concluded. "The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centres in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on Assad's forces."

Mr McCain's proposal will probably divide American politicians, many of whom opposed a similar operation in Libya last year.

Even if it were championed by the Obama administration and its Nato allies, the plan would divide other countries hostile to the Assad regime but unwilling to support another Western military intervention in the Muslim world. And it would be anathema to Russia, which sees Syria as its primary ally in the Middle East.

Unlike the international Libya campaign that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year, military action against Syria would not have the backing of the UN Security Council and would be difficult to justify under international law.

In many ways, it would also be a rejection of Mr Obama's doctrine stressing international collaboration on applying military force. Mr Obama's strategy has been to use sanctions and international diplomatic isolation to pressure Mr Assad into handing over power as part of a political transition.

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