WASHINGTON – The following remarks, as prepared for delivery, were delivered by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, at a hearing Thursday entitled, “Regional Impact of the Syria Conflict: Syria, Turkey and Iraq”:
“Thank you, Chairman Corker, for convening this important hearing today on the impact of the Syria conflict on the region.
“Secretary Blinken, welcome back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s not every day that we have a star from Sesame Street with us – for anyone that has not seen Mr. Blinken’s guest appearance with Grover, I encourage you to watch him discuss refugees with everyone’s favorite furry blue monster before the President’s Summit on Refugees during the UN General Assembly.
“We know that you are just returned from a trip to Turkey. We look forward to learning about your discussions there given Turkey’s critical role in the success of the counter-ISIL campaign, ending the conflict in Syria, and for broader regional stability.
“Charged with oversight of the State Department, the members of this Committee have a fundamental interest in the success of U.S. diplomacy and U.S. leadership in the foreign policy arena. Secretary Kerry is correct in his belief that the tools of diplomacy should always be the preferred method for stopping violence, saving lives, and restoring stability. To this end, I want to commend the dedication of Secretary Kerry, yourself, and all of our nation’s diplomats who have worked around the clock with both allies and adversaries to forge an agreement to end the violence in Syria.
“But now we are clearly at an inflection point. The U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement was based on the assumption that Russia could compel the Assad regime to ground its air force, that Russia could compel the Assad regime to allow immediate and unfettered humanitarian access. We have clearly seen that neither of these two objectives were achieved.
“Russia strives to be considered a peer, one that is essential to solving global problems. But I seriously question the utility of talking to the Russians and now cannot support military cooperation with them. We must reevaluate our approach to Russia, in the Middle East and beyond the Middle East. Russia continues to attack Ukrainian forces in Donbass. It illegally occupies Crimea. It has hacked into our computer systems and sought to destabilize our electoral process. These are not the actions of a partner, but an adversary.
“With our focus on Russia, however, we cannot lose sight of Iran’s nefarious role in Syria and beyond. We know that Iran is backing the Assad regime economically and militarily. IRGC commanders have died fighting in Syria. Iran has mobilized militia fighters, provided intelligence to support Syrian and Russian targeting, send in lethal aid, and mobilized Hezbollah. There must be consequences for these actions, and there are plenty of tools we have at our disposal. I reject the utterly false narrative that Iranian and Russian activities in Syria constitute “counterterrorism.” I look forward to hearing from you, Mr. Blinken, on what more the U.S. can do going forward to make supporting Assad painful.
“Turning to Iraq, the counter-ISIL fight is just the first step in restoring stability. I am cautiously optimistic that the military operation to push ISIL out of Mosul is resourced and planned to achieve its goals. But beyond military operations, I want to raise the alarm bells about winning the peace.
“Iraqi leaders in Baghdad must get their act together. The past few months of political infighting and mud throwing instill no confidence that leaders in Baghdad, Erbil, and at the provincial level are prepared to put the Iraqi people first. We know that the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and other forces cannot fight or bomb their way to a stable Iraq. What will come after ISIL’s defeat?
“I am not confident that Iraq’s leaders are sufficiently engaged to respond to the humanitarian crisis coming when hundreds of thousands of civilians flee Mosul. I am not confident that Iraq’s leaders are effectively in control of Popular Mobilization Forces to prevent sectarian reprisal violence. I am not confident that Iraq’s leaders are committed to a recovery, stabilization, and governance plan that will give all Iraqis a stake in peace.
“Weeks ago I would have said that the situation in the region could not be any worse. Now we know that it can. Russia is guilty of war crimes for bombing a humanitarian aid convoy. Assad is barrel bombing Aleppo with impunity and using water access as a weapon, as if denying humanitarian aid was not sufficiently deplorable. These are crimes against humanity.
“The longer Assad remains entrenched in Damascus and the longer ISIL and Nusra Front remain active in the region, the more depraved this situation becomes, the more hopeless are innocent civilians, the more susceptible are vulnerable populations to violent extremism, and the more strained are governments in Jordan and Lebanon to respond to these pressures.
“At risk is an entire generation of children in the region who have only known war and friendly governments who want to stand with us as a bulwark against ISIL. At risk is an entire generation of children who will only know refugee camps, who do not have access to clean water, healthcare, school, and employment opportunities. This situation cannot continue.