At Hearing, Kerry Stresses Urgency, Complicated Options in Syria
Washington, DC – This morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) delivered the following statement at a hearing that explored possible next steps for U.S. policy on Syria.
“We are currently looking at a dangerous and downward spiral in the heart of the Middle East, and one that has the potential – not necessarily, but certainly the potential – to threaten the security of key regional friends and partners, including Israel, but other countries also, and it has profound strategic implications for our country, and for other countries in the region,” said Sen. Kerry. “The international community—with American leadership and support—must continue to help the opposition both in ending Assad's reign of terror and in preparing for what comes next after he is gone.”
The full text of Chairman Kerry’s hearing statement, as delivered, is below:
Thank you all for being here with us today. We have a very distinguished panel and we’re grateful for some good friends coming in here today to share thoughts with us about an issue that is really dominating concerns in the Middle East right now in many different ways and which presents a lot of complicated policy questions – that is the evolving situation in Syria, obviously.
I think all of my colleagues will agree that we are currently looking at a dangerous and downward spiral in the heart of the Middle East, and one that has the potential – not necessarily, but certainly the potential to threaten the security of key regional friends and partners, including Israel, but other countries also, and it has profound strategic implications for our country, and for other countries in the region. The international community—with American leadership and support—must continue to help the opposition both in ending Assad's reign of terror and in preparing for what comes next after he is gone.
I know that reading today’s newspapers it’s clear that Kofi Annan’s mission, and the difficulties that he’s faced, that President Assad doesn’t yet believe that, or at least certainly doesn’t evidence any indication that he is contemplating that possibility. But, most observers – most people – analyzing the situation, seeing increasing defections, increasing violence, increasing capacity by the opposition, as well as other indicators, draw that conclusion that the days are numbered.
What know that Bashar al-Assad and his supporters are steadily losing their grip. As the fighting spreads to Damascus and Aleppo and the defections from the Syrian military increase—and they are—Assad’s grip on power has becomes more tenuous. The July 18 bombing that eliminated at least four of the regime’s most dangerous henchman demonstrated the growing reach and sophistication of the armed opposition.
But on the other side, make no mistake: Assad’s military is a potent force, and it remains a potent force so long as it remains a unified and functioning force, and that is evidenced by the appalling destruction his forces are inflicting upon Aleppo. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, many of them children. All told, perhaps 20,000 people – and these are estimates, obviously – have been killed and hundreds of thousands or more have had their lives forever changed. What’s difficult about this is there was a period there we the counting seemed to be going on at a relatively precise and regular basis and now the danger is people have stopped counting, to some degree, and we don’t know completely what is happening. I am told by some people that certain things would be a game-changer-- a use of weapons of mass destruction, for instance, or some massive massacre. But that notion that a massive massacre might be a game-changer somehow begs the question of where do you draw the distinction between 100 people a day or 1,000 people a week, or 3,000 or 4,000 people a month, and what does the total mean to all of us and to the civilized world? That is certainly something that Russia, China and some other countries in the region need to ask themselves as we go forward here.
We all know that the regime has threatened to use weapons of mass destruction against foreign intervention, though it has denied that it would deploy them against its own people. The danger is not just Syria’s use of these weapons: As the regime slowly disintegrates, there is a very real danger in that these weapons could be misplaced, stolen, or fall into the wrong hands.
We also know that Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups are seeking to capitalize on the instability. As we’ve learned from previous experiences in Lebanon and Iraq, unwinding cycles of sectarian and terrorist violence can take years. A negotiated political transition remains Syria’s best chance to avoid a further descent into chaos. I think it is clear that time is an important component of this. The longer it goes on, and the more disorganized and ad hoc that it is, the greater the prospect that the very people you least want to see involved become more engaged, the greater the prospect that radicals have an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. The faster it were to change, and the more orderly it were to change, the less prospect there is for the kind of disruption that threatens the region and that empowers the very people that you least want to see empowered. That is something that ought to weigh heavily, I think, on our Russian friends because I believe they have the greatest ability to be the game-changers here. I think we need to keep engaged very, very aggressively in our diplomacy and in our efforts to try to persuade everybody to see what is in, in fact, everybody’s similar interest here. But with Assad employing a scorched earth policy, the longer his regime stays in power, the deeper Syria’s plunge into sectarian civil war is likely to be, and clearly the more dangerous it is for all of the interests that many, many countries share in that region.
That’s why it is imperative we work to expedite President Assad’s exit. Clearly we need to continue to try to convince Russia and China that it is in their interest to seek a political transition that does not include Assad. I think that the votes that have been taken thus far at the UN by Russia and China are inevitably beginning to come back to haunt them in ways that they are increasingly becoming aware of. I think we want to try to approach this thoughtfully, and give them the room to move, but also try to do so in a time frame that meets everybody’s imperatives here.
I do believe that the time has come to shift our emphasis, at the same time, to other multilateral vehicles – and not just have all of our eggs in one basket with respect to Russia – that means the “Friends of Syria” or, if necessary, to organizations such as NATO or Alliance ad hoc, as we have done before in other instances with the Gulf States, or others, in the region. What is clear is that we cannot appear to be feckless, impotent, or ineffective, in the face of this kind of use of force by anybody against their own people with the implications that it has for the region itself. We cannot allow negotiations in the Security Council to block the provision of vital support to the opposition, and that is from humanitarian aid to non-lethal supplies. I say that because we all know that others in the region – the Saudis, Qataris and others – are pursuing their own view of interests, and there certainly is no lack of lethal supplies, at this point, moving around in that part of the world.
There are steps the United States could take to help the armed opposition, some of which we want to explore today. We want to explore a number of questions: what more can be done to facilitate Arab efforts to increase the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army as a cohesive fighting force? Is it appropriate to share intelligence selectively and responsibly with the opposition, particularly on regime force movements? Are there specific instances where we may wish to provide lethal assistance? Are calls for the creation of safe zones or other forms of direct military intervention such as a no-fly zone – are they either practical or advisable?
I continue to believe that prudent military planning is an imperative. But I also believe that we have to be clear-eyed about that. It would be important not to repeat the mistakes of the past by thinking we can just “willy-nilly” commit some forces to a conflict without a definition or achievable objective—and certainly without a sober evaluation of the costs and implications thereof. That is owed not just to the American people, but certainly to the men and women of our armed forces who have been stretched over these years.
Assad’s removal is only the beginning. At last month’s “Friends of Syria” conference, 130 countries and entities agreed to support a transition plan developed by a broad array of Syrian opposition groups. That is not insignificant, my friends. One hundred and thirty countries have already agreed to a transition plan, and increasingly countries in the region are becoming more committed to that transition.
We need to conduct greater planning with these groups and the international community to prepare for the transition. Our plans should include power-sharing provisions to ensure that all of the key sects are brought into the process, give greater definition than we have today to the Free Syrian Army, and to the opposition – that’s something they have to do for themselves but we have to encourage it and help provide the capacity for it, the framework for it, much as we did with Libya, and in other instances. In addition, we learned the hard way in Iraq, a winner-take-all transition where key minority groups are excluded and the military is unable to provide basic security is simply a recipe for prolonged civil war.
To help us navigate these difficult policy challenges, we have, as I said earlier, three very distinguished witnesses:
Ambassador Martin Indyk is Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. He twice served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and is a trusted adviser and confidant to many of the members of this Committee, and certainly to me as chair.
Likewise, Ambassador James Dobbins, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He previously served in numerous crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia.
Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he has spent years living in Syria, and we welcome his knowledge and expertise here today.
Thank you all for joining us today, and we look forward to your testimony and to a good dialogue.
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