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SFRC Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Hearing: “The Path Forward On U.S.-Syria Policy: Strategy And Accountability”

WASHINGTON –  U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks at this morning’s full Committee hearing: “The Path Forward On U.S.-Syria Policy: Strategy And Accountability.” Testifying before the Committee on the first panel were Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul. Testifying before the Committee on the second panel were the Gravedigger, witness to mass graves in Syria, and Dr. Milena Sterio, The Charles R. Emrick Jr.-Calfee Halter & Griswold Professor of Law & LLM Programs Director at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

“The U.S. and the international community must continue to hold the Assad regime accountable for its crimes,” Chairman Menendez said, calling on the Administration to significantly bolster and revitalize its strategy to confront challenges in Syria. “We cannot simply allow the regime to return to business as usual. We cannot turn our backs on the Syrian people. We cannot give up supporting them as so many desperately try to work toward a free and democratic Syria. America’s values, principles and reputation on the world stage hang in the balance.”

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below:

“This hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come to order.

Assistant Secretary Leaf, we are glad to get to welcome you in your new role. We’re glad you finally made it, and most importantly we are happy you are here. Thank you for coming before us today. Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense Stroul, thank you as well for coming back to the Committee. As I’m sure many know, the Assistant Secretary was our Middle East expert for a while, so we are glad to see her back.

I have been asking a simple, but important, question for some time that I hope this hearing will answer: What is the Administration’s strategy in Syria?

During the last presidential election Secretary Blinken wrote, ‘When Joe Biden is president, we will restore U.S. leadership on humanitarian issues.’

And yet with the frozen conflict in Syria leading to immense humanitarian, political and security dilemmas, leadership from the U.S. or elsewhere seems lacking.

Flights to Syria are resuming. Embassies in Damascus are reopening.

When Bashar Al-Assad landed in the United Arab Emirates in March, he was given as a warm welcome as any other head of state would have received.

As if he had never ordered a barbaric bombardment of innocent Syrian civilians.

As if Assad never ordered chemical weapons attacks that left children gasping for their lives on ventilators.

This comes within weeks of new evidence of Syrian atrocities coming to light – videos of Assad’s soldiers forcing victims to climb down into a mass grave before massacring them.

Think of the message this sends to other dictators around the world who would butcher innocent civilians: you can commit war crimes in broad daylight on camera and the global community will just shrug its shoulders.

This is not lost on Iran.

After propping up Assad with billions of dollars, after supporting him with Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Such impunity only fuels Iran’s regional aggression. Whether through attacks on U.S. personnel and assets or threatening our allies and partners in Iraq and Jordan – not to mention fueling an active battleground on Israel’s border.

And it is not lost on Putin.

No one who has followed Putin’s brutality in Syria for the past decade should be surprised that he is starving and shelling Ukrainians – just as he starved and shelled Syrians.

While I have seen the Administration’s strategy for Syria as required in the NDAA – which was skeletal from my perspective – I look forward to delving a bit more in detail into the tools and U.S. and international political will to execute that strategy.

I’d like to hear whether you believe UN Security Council resolution 2254 has lived up to the path we thought it once could because it seems the roads we need to be traveling on are crumbling.

Earlier this year, in an attempt to free imprisoned extremists, ISIS launched a massive jail break in Hasakah. They attacked a Syrian prison with car bombs and gunmen in a battle that lasted more than a week.

On top of that, the Assad regime and Hezbollah are manufacturing addictive amphetamine pills called Captagon, effectively turning Syria into a narco-state, trafficking the drug throughout Europe and the Middle East to obtain hard currency despite sanctions.

And with the UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid expiring next month, there is a real question as to whether Russia will support an extension.

Particularly as the war in Ukraine has ushered in a food crisis that has hit Syria and a number of its neighbors.  We need to continue to prioritize our response to this dire humanitarian situation.

We must continue to support our partners in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and across Europe who have absorbed the Syrian refugee community that amounts to 6.8 million people worldwide. Added to this, another 6.7 million people have been displaced within Syria, leaving an entire generation of Syrian children growing up with dim prospects of ever returning home or the possibility of a bright future.

So to close, let me lay out what I see as priorities. The U.S. and the international community must continue to hold the Assad regime accountable for its crimes.

We need a comprehensive strategy – one that enforces fully the robust set of U.S. sanctions as a means to build leverage that will sharpen Assad’s choices and maintain his political isolation.

This includes using such sanctions against Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran. It also means sending the clear signal that we cannot tolerate a return to business as usual with Assad and his murderous regime.

A strategy would lean in with aggressive U.S. diplomacy to continue to marshal the international community in support of this leverage, and to reinvigorate the political process.

To this end, I am glad that the NEA Bureau now has an appointed and confirmed leader in you, Assistant Secretary; however, there remain a number of nominees for vital positions in the Middle East that need to move forward including, crucially for Syria, Tamara Cofman Wittes as USAID’s Assistant Administrator for the Middle East.

A U.S. strategy would continue to prioritize bringing its own resources and the resources of the international community to bear on Syria’s humanitarian crisis, while being judicious to focus our assistance in ways that does not benefit the regime. It would include how to continue to help Syria’s neighbors, especially Jordan and Lebanon, who have shown incredible hospitality to those fleeing Assad’s brutality but nevertheless are bearing a significant strain.

To that end, we need a full court press at the UN to address a possible Russian veto of the mandate for the last remaining border crossing for desperately needed humanitarian assistance; coupled with a ready-to-implement strategy for pushing that assistance if and when Russia uses its veto. Putin cannot be allowed to hold desperate Syrians as ransom for demands of relief in the Ukraine context.

That strategy should include new consideration of Russia’s role in Syria, following its invasion of Ukraine, and the steps needed to reduce Russian activities while denying Iran and Hezbollah the ability to fill any vacuum created by Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine.

It should also address Turkey’s role in Syria, taking into consideration its hosting of millions of refugees and its position as a launch point for humanitarian assistance, to its destructive campaigns against our Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS, including renewed threats to invade northern Syria.

It would further flesh out steps needed to counter the danger posed by Hezbollah and the Iranian weapons it traffics across Syria.

It should lay out concrete steps to be taken to secure the release of U.S. citizens Austin Tice and Majd Kamalmaz who have been detained by the Assad regime since 2012 and 2017, respectively.

It must provide a path forward that allows unfettered humanitarian access and war crime investigations.

It must provide a long-term legal strategy for ensuring that the horrors that Bashar al-Assad and his regime have inflicted on the Syrian people do not go unanswered. 

And it should describe how the U.S. can help rally the weight of international pressure on Assad to pursue the political path to unfreeze this conflict.

On this, Congress has been clear.

We overwhelmingly passed the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, whose primary purpose is to sanction companies or individuals who facilitate Assad’s brutality – whether they are doing business with the Syrian government or its security services, providing aircraft or spare parts. And I would like to see the Administration use all these tools.

We cannot simply allow the regime to return to business as usual. We cannot turn our backs on the Syrian people. We cannot give up supporting them as so many desperately try to work toward a free and democratic Syria.

America’s values, principles and reputation on the world stage hang in the balance.

And with that let turn to Senator Risch, the Ranking Member.”