WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday called for the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime has attacked antigovernment protesters.
The freshman senator joined fellow Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, at a Capitol Hill press conference, to unveil a resolution that urges President Barack Obama to expand sanctions against the Syrian government and speak out on the situation "directly, and personally."
"We ask you to lead us now in making the cause of the Syrian people America's cause as well," Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in remarks directed at Obama. "In our words and actions, it should be clear that America is on the side of the Syrian people and that we support their right to peacefully pursue a better future for their country.
"We must also send an important message to the Syrian regime that we condemn its crimes and that Bashar Assad should no longer be treated as the legitimate ruler."
The news conference marks the Miami Republican's first major appearance on the foreign policy stage, and he bookended it with appearances on CBS and CNN.
"Any time a government has to use government forces and army forces to kill unarmed citizens in order to hold onto power, that makes them illegitimate and that's what's happening in Syria," he said on CBS. "I hope the United States will be a clear voice saying that."
The resolution declares Assad's government — "through its campaign of violence and gross human rights abuses, has lost its legitimacy" — an assertion the White House has not made, as it has with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"I know that there are some who had hoped when these protests first broke out that Bashar Assad would pursue the path of reform rather than the path of violence and brutality," Lieberman said. "But that's clearly not been his choice. … He is not a reformer. He is a thug and a murderer, a totalitarian leader who is pursuing the Gadhafi model, and hopes to get away with it."
McCain said that three officials with the Syrian regime face sanctions, "but not the guy that's giving the orders. It's time we indicted the guy that's giving the orders. And it's time for the president of the United States to speak up forcefully and frequently."
McCain said the senators aren't pushing for airstrikes like those launched in Libya — noting the uprisings are occurring "all over Syria.
"As a matter of practicality, it's almost impossible to intervene in any way but the ways we are advocating," he said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the treatment of protesters "barbaric measures" and suggested the window for the Syrian government to address those concerns is closing rapidly.