Skip to content

Menendez Opening Statement at Hearing on the Humanitarian Impact of the War in Syria

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following remarks at a hearing entitled, “the Humanitarian Impact of Eight Years of War in Syria,” with testimony by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller and International Rescue Committee CEO David Miliband:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Let me first join you in honoring the memory of the late Senator Dick Lugar. I was privileged to join the committee while he was chairman at the time. He was the ultimate statesman. At a time in which there is such a lack of bipartisanship, he ran this committee with the comity, with the courtesy, with the respect for all views that we should emulate in our work today. At a time when Russia is violating the INF treaty and potentially leading us into a new nuclear arms race, it was Dick Lugar’s work with Sam Nunn who made a difference in the world, in terms of reeling us back from that arms race, and creating safer, more secure world for generations to come. And so I am better off having known Dick Lugar, and I am reminded of his work, and I try to emulate some of what he did in the work we do every day.

I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing to highlight devastating, ongoing human suffering inside of Syria.  For more than eight years, the Assad regime has waged an unrelenting war of brutality against the people of Syria, forcing millions to flee their homes, upending families and generations to come, destroying a once beautiful country, and enabling terrorists and nefarious actors to gain stronger footholds across the region.

I had hoped, Mr. Chairman, that we could have heard from Syrians directly today, but instead let me at least acknowledge among us today, members of the inspiring White Helmets, who to this day continue to risk their lives to save others and to tell the story of Assad’s murderous campaign.

Raed Salah is in town to receive a well-deserved award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I ask that a statement from the group be submitted for the record. And I thank them today for being here with us.

While we may talk of the defeat of the caliphate of ISIS, violence continues to rage in Syria’s country side and villages. Capitalizing on an incoherent policy from the United States and fatigue from the international community, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian facilitators of war crimes killed some 100 people in February in Idlib alone. Nearly half of them were children. 

Facing Assad’s barrel bombs and starvation campaign as well as horrific violence from terrorist organizations, some 6.2 million are displaced from their homes within the country, many lacking access to adequate food and basic healthcare. More than two million children are out of school, risking a lost generation.

Five million have fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, who have shown an extraordinary openness.

The impacts of this crisis, however, are not confined to the region.

Nobody can forget the devastating images of dead Syrian children washing up on the shores of Greece, nor the hundreds who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.  While some governments have shown extraordinary compassion in welcoming the influx of refugees, this crisis has also fueled existing xenophobic, nationalistic voices seeking to upend the very foundational values and institutions that shaped the past half century. And as Syrians bear the burden, the Kremlin wins on two fronts - the refugee crisis contributes to the political splintering of Europe and it is able to maintain a foothold in the Middle East through its war criminal patron in Damascus.

During the past eight years of war, the international community has failed Syria: failed to resolve the conflict, protect civilians from gross violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict, and ensure durable solutions for refugees.

Instead of United States historical leadership in response to this kind of suffering, in 2018, President Trump froze and then terminated stabilization assistance in north eastern Syria and then announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops by tweet, shocking both our local partners and deployed allies. Since then, erratic policy pronouncements have created uncertainty about US strategy, timeline, intentions and reliability.

Rather than providing resources to countries hosting Syrian refugees, President Trump’s proposed budget includes an unprecedented cut of over 30 percent in humanitarian aid, which is something that, luckily, Congress rejected. The proposal was reckless, dangerous and a rejection of American values and global leadership.

There are, however, steps we can take to address this crisis.

At a minimum, this Administration should work to ensure humanitarian access to men, women and children in need, and to secure adequate funding for the humanitarian response.

I am glad to hear in your comments, Mr. Chairman, that you plan to move the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act soon as a standalone bill. I know that Democrats stand ready to cast a vote for the bill to send it directly to the President’s desk, as it has already passed the House of Representatives.

And here at home we must lead by example. For decades, the U.S. government was both an author and a champion of refugee protection principles globally. Sadly, this Administration has slammed the door on Syrian refugees. In 2016, of the 5 million around the world, the United States welcomed over 12,587 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees – women, children, the sick and the elderly.  In 2018, the Trump Administered barred the door, admitting just sixty-two Syrian refugees. Sixty-two.

It appears the Trump Administration is waging a deliberate campaign to send a message that the United States is no longer that shining beacon for those fleeing oppression, seeking asylum and a better life.

The United States has an ability to be a force for good and restore our international standing. We must stand by our partners who have fought alongside us. We must push back against those who would seek to exploit a vacuum of leadership and threaten our interests. And doing that requires sustained support for the people of Syria and our allies.

We thank our witnesses for the work that they have been doing, for their continuing efforts to both expose the devastating crisis and marshal support, and we look forward to your testimony.”