Five months into his second term, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is positioning himself as a key congressional player on a range of Middle East issues, including the two-year-old Syrian civil war.
The time may be right to offer limited military aid to Syrian rebels — on top of the hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid the United States has already committed, Casey said in a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish Exponent on May 29.
The Democratic senator also discussed efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well as the evolution of his thinking on gun control.
The interview at the Exponent offices in Center City came about six weeks after the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East returned from his third official visit to the region. The latest trip included stops in Israel, the West Bank, Turkey and Egypt, and focused heavily on how the United States might help end the deadly Syrian conflict and prevent it from becoming a regional conflagration.
“The broad outline is, we should be doing more,” said Casey, who indirectly criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for not having a strategic approach to toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Casey ruled out sending American troops to the country and said that creating a no-fly zone could be risky. But targeting Syria’s aircraft fleet would be doable and would negate the regime’s biggest military advantage — air power.
The regime needs to fall, he said, and that won’t happen “unless you change the calculus on the battlefield.”
“If the regime stays in place,” he added, “I think it is bad for our national security interests.”
Some pundits have argued that while Assad’s rule may be brutal, it might be preferable to what would happen if the country came under the rule of Islamic extremists or was completely destabilized.
Two months ago, Pennsylvania’s senior senator introduced a bill along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would provide non-lethal aid — such as body armor and communications equipment — to heavily vetted members of the Syrian opposition.
Casey acknowledged that knowing the right groups to assist can be tricky and that extremist organizations like Al-Nusra are heavily involved in the opposition.
“We know a lot more than we did a year ago,” said Casey. “The bad news is, it is difficult to do it with precision. There is always going to be a certain amount of risk, but the vetting has begun already.”
While in the Middle East, Casey met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. While he praised Netanyahu’s willingness to return to the negotiating table, he described the meeting with Abbas in Ramallah as “frustrating.”
Abbas, said Casey, was “erecting barriers or laying down conditions that will prevent them from getting to the table.”
When asked about Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal to invest $4 billion into the Palestinian economy as part of a push toward a peace deal, Casey said he didn’t know enough of the details to comment.
But overall, he praised Kerry’s drive to get the two sides talking again.
“I think it is worth the effort, until you run into such a wall that it doesn’t make sense to push anymore,” he said.
He stressed that the renewed American focus on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks should not take the focus off Iran, which is expected to elect a new hardline president next month. Casey was one of three authors of a 2012 non-binding Senate resolution stating that it’s official American policy to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons’ capability, as opposed to the actually acquiring a nuclear weapon.
On the domestic front, Casey has long taken more conservative positions than most Democrats on some bellwether such as abortion and gun control — positions that have generally been viewed as in line with the majority of voters in the state.
But several months ago, Casey — who has enjoyed high ratings from the National Rifle Association — announced he was switching his stance and supporting a renewed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“I think it comes down to one word — Newtown,” he said, referring to the Dec. 24 shooting of six adults and 20 children in a Connecticut elementary school. “I could no longer, in light of that tragedy, stay in the lane I was in.”
Casey said that it seems clear that the alleged shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, had the intent “to kill hundreds of children. The key thing we have to try and work on is the magazine and limiting the number of bullets that are available.”
Citing the recent mass shootings that have shaken the nation, he said: “That is the common denominator between Newtown, Tucson and Aurora.”