May 17, 2016

Corker: Obama Administration Vacuum in Syria Filled by Russia and Iran

WASHINGTON – As Secretary of State John Kerry met with officials from other world powers in Vienna to restart the peace process in Syria, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged the Obama administration with leaving a vacuum in Syria that Russia and Iran exploited by intervening on behalf of the Syrian government. He also expressed skepticism over the ability of the U.S. to influence the outcome of the conflict without military leverage over the Assad regime. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing today about the war in Syria and next steps for the U.S. after negotiations between the opposition and government collapsed amid renewed violence. Witnesses testified about the prospects for a renewed cessation of hostilities and restoring humanitarian access as a precursor to further negotiations to end the conflict.

“Without leverage on the Assad regime, we have little ability to influence a diplomatic solution to the war,” said Corker. “In essence what we’ve allowed to occur is that this is going to be settled in the manner that Russia and Iran decide it’s going to be settled. And that pendulum swung when Russia stepped into the vacuum that we allowed to exist for so long. We did not along the way do the things we said we were going to do [for the moderate opposition].”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford downplayed the likelihood of a political settlement absent “greater military pressure” on the Assad government, especially after Russian intervention. He also questioned the sway of the United States over moderate Syrian opposition forces given their concerns over “inconsistent” support from the Obama administration.

“I will add here that without greater military pressure on the Syrian government it will not negotiate a compromise political settlement,” said Ford. “The Russian intervention thus hindered prospects of a negotiated deal. The United States, meanwhile, lacks leverage with the armed opposition because it – and its regional backers – view us as inconsistent at best. I don’t know if our policy on the armed opposition in the remaining time of the Obama administration will change. I only know the result the policy has had on the ground.”

Ford advocated for the U.S. to boost military assistance to the moderate opposition and to challenge Russian support for the Assad regime by bringing a Chapter 7 resolution at the United Nations that would justify the use of force to enforce a ceasefire and the flow of humanitarian aid.

Tamara Wittes, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, argued that President Barack Obama miscalculated in downplaying the threat of the Syrian civil war to the United States.

“President Obama’s initial read of the Syrian conflict as holding only narrow implications for American interests was a signal failure to learn the lessons of the post-Cold War period, and the civil wars of the 1990s, by recognizing the risk that Syria’s civil war could spill over in ways that directly implicated U.S. interests,” Wittes said.

For archived footage and full witness testimony, click here.

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