WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this morning delivered opening remarks at a full committee hearing titled “Nine Years of Brutality: Assad’s Campaign Against the Syrian People.” Testifying at today’s hearing where Syrian Military Defector known by his codename "Caesar”, Omar Alshogre, Director of detainee issues for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and Raed Al Saleh, Head of the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets).
Below are Ranking Member Menendez’s full remarks as delivered:
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman for holding this hearing to commemorate, and try to grapple with, the horrific atrocities the Assad regime, with its Russian and Iranian backers, is perpetrating against innocent people in Syria. Our witnesses today have literally risked their lives to bear witness to crimes against humanity...to expose the barbarity of a dictator, who for almost a decade has fomented a reign of fear, repression, and torture against his own citizens. A ruthless leader who has not only cooperated with terrorists to incite violence, who has murdered innocent civilians in cold blood, but who has barbarously bombed hospitals and medical workers to prevent them from providing relief.
Your courageous acts Caesar, ensure that that the world can – and must – hold the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers – accountable for their crimes. Your continued efforts to provide relief to the millions who need it remind us that we must continue to press for a political solution and to provide for those in immediate need.
Nine years. Nine years ago, peaceful demonstrators took to the streets to demand change and accountability from their government. Their calls for democratic reform were met with a vicious response that has turned into a brutal, devastating, campaign. We know the numbers; more than half a million innocent people killed. Millions and millions forcibly displaced from their homes, many fleeing multiple times from the places in which they sought refuge.
Last month, headlines screamed about the hundreds of thousands of innocent people fleeing for their lives in Idlib. People burning doors they had ripped from the hinges of their homes to stay warm; babies who survived targeted bombing campaigns only to freeze to death in their parents’ arms. And yet, the world seems paralyzed to act. We talk of humanitarian relief, and Russia and Turkey continue to calculate the implementation of yet another “ceasefire.” But we need serious leadership and commitment. As Raed says in his written testimony “what is needed is the political will to act to protect civilians.”
Unfortunately, for nine years, the United States has not displayed that political will. American efforts at promoting a political process in the early years of the conflict were overwhelmed by the more invested Russian, Iranian, and Turkish governments. Facing little more than rhetorical pushback, and culling support from terrorists and Russian air power alike, the Assad regime has pushed forward with its atrocities. Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last year, Turkey stepped up its military involvement, pouring more fuel onto a raging fire and undermining our ability to respond.
Over the years, this Committee and Congress as a whole have taken a number of steps to encourage both this Administration and the last to make clearly assert American leadership in standing with the Syrian people, from authorizing a range of diplomatic and military tools, to an AUMF in the face of the regime’s first chemical weapons attack, to support for humanitarian assistance and refugee programs. Unfortunately, we have not seen assertive policies from either of the past two Administrations. However, inaction itself is a decision. One that can carries consequences.
The Administration must make some decisions now. Will and how will they work to protect civilians to ensure that that they receive critical humanitarian aid? While Ambassadors Jeffrey and Craft’s visit to Idlib sent an important message that we are not totally deaf to the cries of civilians in desperate need, we must ensure that aid can be delivered, including a strategy at the UN to renew critical border crossing access for humanitarian operators.
And on the questions of accountability, the Administration must rigorously implement the Caesar Civilian Protection Act. It must commit resources holding the Assad regime and Russian and Iranian facilitators accountable for their crimes against humanity.
We must find a way to support the millions of refugees and displaced people in Syria. But being a leader also requires setting an example. The Administration has destroyed this country’s rich history of serving as beacon of hope and light to all those oppressed. And when we close our doors we not only turn our backs to those in need; we send a global message that it is acceptable to do so.
Our witnesses here, of course, cannot answer these questions. They have done extraordinary things --from exposing the regime’s barbarity, to enduring that same barbarity and living to talk about it, to rushing towards the scene of an airstrike to save lives-- but they cannot change U.S. policy. I hope, however, their powerful testimonies will compel us to do more.”