By Julian Pecquet - 02/27/13 07:35 PM EST
The Obama administration should send ammunition to the Syrian rebels, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Wednesday.
The comments from a potential Republican front-runner in 2016 suggest both parties are coalescing around a more forceful U.S. role in the two-year-old civil war.
“There are plenty of weapons in Syria. What the opposition really needs is access to ammunition,” Rubio said in an address to the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Ammunition is something we can provide that is not weaponry per se, but is essential. That's the stuff I'm prepared to advocate for.”
The comments build on what Rubio has been saying for the past week during a visit to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.
He called himself a “forceful advocate for U.S. engagement” in Syria during a press conference in Jerusalem, and during a little noticed interview for British Sky TV last Wednesday for the first time mentioned that U.S. policymakers should “begin to explore providing ammunition to the rebels.”
Some Republican hawks — led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — have called for a stronger U.S. response, including arming the rebels and creating no-fly zones.
Rubio in his address Wednesday said the Syrian opposition against President Bashar al-Assad is losing faith in the West in general — and in the United States in particular — for not doing more to support them during the 23-month old conflict which has already claimed 70,000 lives.
He added that the U.S. should do more to back pro-American groups in the opposition to prevent the rise of hostile elements in a post-Assad Syria.
“The problem we have is that the best-organized, the best-armed and the best-equipped elements in Syria are the Mujahideen, the most anti-democratic, the most anti-American,” Rubio warned. There is a risk of seeing the “people who quite frankly are against our national interest” take power when Assad falls, he said.
Rubio also said Iran's nuclear program remains the main concern for Israel, far ahead of the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. He said he was doubtful that international sanctions would succeed but expressed support for President Obama's continued efforts to negotiate with Tehran.
“I do not believe that ultimately sanctions with Iran will get them to abandon their nuclear ambitions,” he said. “I hope that I'm wrong... But I think we should give them a chance.”
Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, struck a largely non-partisan tone as he described his trip to the Middle East — his first since taking office in 2010 — and answered questions from the audience.
The trip mirrors Obama's own visit to the region next month and aimed in part at bolstering Rubio's image on the world stage ahead of a possible 2016 run.
Rubio said Obama should use his trip to reassure U.S. allies in the region that America is not turning away from the Middle East as it “pivots” to Asia, reassert the nation's commitment to democracy and human rights — including by withholding foreign aid to recalcitrant nations — and reaffirm its promise to the security of Israel and the Gulf states.
U.S. foreign policy was “by and large not a partisan issue,” said Rubio.
This story was updated at 4:37 p.m.