October 22, 2019

Chairman Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on Turkey's Offensive in Northeast Syria

Washington, D.C. -- U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full committee hearing on Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria, with witness testimony from the Honorable James F. Jeffrey, special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the Department of State, and Mr. Matthew A. Palmer, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Afairs at the Department of State.

Chairman Risch gave the following opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

"Good afternoon to you all, and thanks to our witnesses for joining us today to examine the recent troubling events in Syria and more importantly, to discuss policy options that will best address U.S. national security interests in this volatile region.

"This hearing is intended to assess the geopolitical and humanitarian impact of Turkey’s cross-border attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East, determine how best to salvage U.S. interests moving forward, and evaluate the state of U.S.-Turkey relations.

"Before we talk about the current state of affairs in Syria, it’s important to recall the path that brought us here.

"To begin, the Syrian Civil War is a complex, multi-sided conflict that has drawn in Russia, Iran, the U.S., NATO allies, and others.

"Over the course of this eight years long conflict, Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, has relentlessly bombed towns and cities across Syria, resulting in over 500,000 deaths, and leaving over 10 million displaced.

"We are all aware of the many confirmed uses of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed Assad Regime adding to the humanitarian suffering and violations of international law. The Syrian, Russian, and Iranian regimes now hope to build upon the successful defeat of the self-declared Islamic caliphate and expand their control over northeastern Syria. These are the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

"Beginning in 2011, the Islamic State took full advantage of the chaos in Syria to gather its strength. The group’s ascendance was accompanied with a nearly unprecedented level of cruelty.

"By 2014, ISIS had gathered enough strength to spill over the Syrian border into Iraq. ISIS captured huge swaths of territory and declared the formation of its so-called caliphate. The world watched as the Yazidis faced slaughter on Mount Sinjar. Iraqi soldiers were marched to mass graves in the Camp Spiker massacre. Women and children were sold into sexual slavery. Execution videos made by ISIS were packaged as recruitment materials.

"After several false starts, the United States led a Syrian Kurd and Arab fighting force and a 91-nation coalition intent on defeating the caliphate. With a limited number of boots on the ground, U.S. and coalition airpower, coupled with an effective Kurd-based ground force, forced the territorial defeat of ISIS. The heavy Kurdish involvement in the defeat of ISIS has come at great cost. Nearly 11,000 Syrian Kurds have been reported killed and many more wounded.

"That brings us to the present day. Turkey’s relationship with the region’s Kurdish population has been fraught for centuries, but particularly over the last three decades. U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters in the war against ISIS created massive tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Turkey views the Syrian Kurds as an extension of the insurgency group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought an insurgency against Ankara for decades. On and off violence has affected the citizens and country of Turkey for years, which is why the U.S. has worked for months to help address Turkey’s security concerns.

"Let me be clear, Turkey’s misguided invasion into northern Syria now threatens to unravel all of the progress the U.S. and our partners have fought so hard to achieve.

"ISIS is defeated but elements remain that could reconstitute and pose a threat to U.S. national security interests and those of our allies in the region.

"Our counterterrorism concerns emanating from Syria and the surrounding region remain very real. Continuing regional conflict and instability, coupled with opportunities to establish sanctuary space, creates conditions for ISIS revival with the potential to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies. Absent continued counterterrorism pressure, ISIS is likely to return in Syria or elsewhere. Only through vigilance will we keep ourselves safe. Partnership with the Kurds will remain an important part of that strategy.

"Turkey has assured us that they will continue to battle the Islamic State. To say the least, I remain skeptical of Turkey’s counterterrorism guarantees. We have tread this ground before. We have offered Turkey the opportunity to combat ISIS and its affiliates. Turkey has promised to provide forces to combat ISIS. But Turkey has failed to follow through with those forces. Worse, sometimes the forces in question had questionable ties to jihadist or al Qaeda-linked groups.

"The fact of the matter is that Turkey’s primary concern is its decades old struggle against PKK. Countering ISIS falls much further down Turkey’s list of priorities.

"In addition to sacrificing our gains against ISIS, Turkey’s actions threaten further instability and chaos in a country that’s already suffered years of destruction and devastation. Reports of Syrian and Russian troops occupying abandoned U.S. positions underscore that Turkey’s actions have opened the door to Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers. Additionally, the humanitarian toll of this incursion has been swift and severe.

"The U.S. withdrawal has created an opportunity to be exploited by Russia. Indeed, on the day the U.S.-brokered ceasefire is set to expire, President Erdogan met with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the future of Syria today. UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the framework for a political resolution in Syria - a ceasefire, formation of a constitutional committee and free elections - remains very much in doubt with Putin’s high level of involvement. We should very strongly discourage unhelpful parallel talks and instead reinvigorate the UN-brokered process on Syria’s future.

"ISIS detainees and foreign terrorist fighters, many of them at makeshift prisons, add to the complexity. We’ve already seen reports of breakouts at al Hol camp. Further release or escape of battle-hardened terrorists, particularly high value individuals, will only serve as a strategic boon to ISIS and swell their ranks.

"Finally, there is the broader issue of U.S.-Turkish relations. Prior to the Syrian invasion, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic posture and dangerous tilt towards Moscow was a cause for serious concern. Turkey has imprisoned Americans and U.S. consulate employees. It has jailed more journalists than anywhere else in the world. It also recently purchased and accepted the delivery of the Russian S-400 missile defense system despite the loud protestations of Turkey’s closest allies. Now, we’re forced to confront a Turkey that acts blatantly against U.S. national security interests and brutally attacks U.S. regional partners, over our most strenuous objections.

"While I appreciate efforts to reduce the violence through negotiations, if Turkey maintains its aggressive path, it must bear a cost for undermining U.S. security interests. That is precisely why Ranking Member Menendez and I have written legislation to sanction, block arms sales, and impose costs on Turkey if it continues its ill-advised Syria invasion.

"I took a little liberty by saying the ranking member and I, but there were many members of this committee who had input into this. I want to compliment the staffs of both the majority and the minority for working so hard on a bill that we think is good - it is still a work in progress. We have a number of other fronts that have opened up and some members of this committee have partnered on other bills. I would urge when these things happen, that we try as best we can to act as a committee. We are much stronger when we are together, and I think a bill that comes out of this committee with a real push from a vast majority of our members would be very helpful. We hope to be able to move the bill that we are working on in the very near future.

"Ambassador Jeffery, DAS Palmer, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this current crisis and its future implications. I appreciate your time and thank you for your attendance here today. I hope you can provide some guidance on how the administration intends to tackle this difficult situation and provide some ideas for a constructive path for the U.S. Congress to take moving forward."

The witness testimonies are available on foreign.senate.gov, as is an archived recording of the full hearing.

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