Rubio calls for US, allies to establish 'safe zone' for Syria rebels, refugees

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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio called for the U.S. and its allies to established a "safe zone" inside Syria Monday night in the wake of Russian airstrikes to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Florida senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told Fox News' Megyn Kelly the safe zone would alleviate three effects of Syria's bloody civil war.

"Number one, [it would allow] a non-radical jihadist group to organize and prepare themselves," Rubio said. "Number two [it would] stem some of this flow of migrants that are leaving [Syria] and going into Europe. If they had a place they could stay safely, they wouldn’t make that journey. Number three, [it would] ultimately have something in place for a future without Assad."

Rubio has previously backed the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria that would allow the U.S. to provide air cover for refugees fleeing the conflict. Declaring a no-fly zone over Syria would in effect put the U.S. directly at war with the Syrian government, since it likely would require bombing Syrian air defenses to keep the skies safe for the U.S. combat aircraft enforcing the zone.

Rubio also discussed the Russian airstrikes, which began Thursday and have largely targeted mainstream Syrian opposition groups, not the Islamic State terror organization (ISIS).

"This is part of a very cunning strategy on the part of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," Rubio said. "What he’s saying is 'I’m gonna destroy all the non-ISIS fighters and I’m gonna turn to the world and say "OK guys, the only two people left fighting in Syria are ISIS and Assad. We’re on Assad’s side, whose side are you on?"' He wants to eliminate any other option to toppling Assad. Not only are we letting him, we’re doing nothing to help those people on the ground."

Last week, Rubio described Putin as a "gangster and a thug" at a national security forum in Iowa.

"We are barreling toward a second Cold War," Rubio said at the time. "The more our current president fails the test of leadership against Putin, the more important it becomes for our next president to pass it. And I will pass that test if I am given that opportunity."

Rubio similarly criticized the Obama administration Monday, saying of the White House's present Syria strategy, "There isn't one."

Rubio has seen his support climb in recent Republican primary polls as he picked up support following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's exit from the race.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.