WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Marco Rubio said on Wednesday the United States should create a "safe haven" for the Syrian opposition but stopped short of urging Washington to arm the rebels, suggesting they were not yet organized enough.
The potential Republican vice presidential candidate gave a lengthy foreign policy speech that stressed a more active U.S. role in the world but that echoed U.S. President Barack Obama's positions in some respects, notably on Syria and Iran.
Rubio had tart words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he "might talk tough, but he knows he is weak," and for China, saying that "for now, it would be foolish to be confident in the idea that China can be counted on to defend and support global economic and political freedom."
Speaking at the Brookings Institution think tank, Rubio urged a more muscular U.S. response on Syria, saying others see it as a test of U.S. leadership and will conclude Washington "is no longer a reliable security partner" if it does not step up.
"The most powerful and influential nation in the world cannot ask smaller, more vulnerable nations to take risks while we stand on the sidelines," he said.
"Leading a coalition with Turkey and the Arab League nations to assist the opposition, by creating a safe haven and equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communications tools and potentially weapons, will not only weaken Iran, it will ultimately increase our ability to influence the political environment of a post-Assad Syria," Rubio added.
At least 9,000 people are believed to have been killed in Syria during more than a year of fighting as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to put down anti-government protests.
The Syrian government says 2,600 of its security personnel have been killed by the rebel armed groups that operate in parts of the country of 23 million.
The Obama administration has said it is already giving the Syrian opposition logistical and communications help, but it has shied away from providing arms, in part out of concern about the rebels' organization. Rubio appeared to share those misgivings.
"We have to be sure that ... we understand the nature of who they are, their ability to protect these weapons from falling into the wrong hands. They have to show us some increased structural capacity," he said. "We need to see some progress in terms of ... more organization."
Rubio, a conservative Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida, campaigned with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney earlier this week, which increased speculation he might be high on Romney's list of potential vice presidential running mates in the November election against Obama.
While saying the United States should cooperate with others, Rubio said it must reserve the right to act unilaterally. Former U.S. President George W. Bush's perceived go-it-alone tendencies were harshly criticized by Democrats and by foreign officials and Obama has taken a more deliberately multilateral approach.
"America has acted unilaterally in the past - and I believe it should continue to do so in the future - when necessity requires," Rubio said. "But our preferred option since the U.S. became a global leader has been to work with others."
On Iran, Rubio argued that the Obama administration should do more to prepare for the possibility that a military strike might be necessary to attack its nuclear program.
The United States and its allies suspect that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic bombs. Iran says its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity and for medical purposes.
The Obama administration has pursued a "dual-track" approach toward Iran, pursuing negotiations with Iran to try to halt its nuclear program while also imposing increasingly tight sanctions to pressure it to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Rubio echoed the phrase as he emphasized the possibility of military action.
"Even as we work through the United Nations and with the international community on sanctions and negotiations, we should operate on a dual track," he said. "We should also be preparing our allies, and the world, for the uncomfortable reality that unfortunately, if all else fails, preventing a nuclear Iran may tragically require a military solution."
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that no option is off the table in dealing with Iran, diplomatic code for the possibility of a military strike.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney)