June 08, 2022

Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on U.S.-Syria Policy

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on the path forward on U.S.-Syria policy: strategy and accountability. The witnesses for panel one included: The Honorable Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and Ms. Dana Stroul, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East.

On panel two, the witnesses included: The Gravedigger, witness to mass graves in Syria, and Dr. Milena Sterio, professor of law & LLM programs director at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. Let me put my statement into context before I start – there is no daylight between the chairman and me on the Syrian issue. I think he has clearly laid it out and I’m going to talk about it a little bit more.

“Now, more than ever – particularly in the face of Putin’s brutality in Ukraine, it is absolutely crucial we confront Assad’s ongoing crimes against the Syrian people.

“Over the past 12 years, the Assad regime, with the support of his Russian and Iranian backers, has carried out countless chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians, intentionally targeted hospitals and schools, used starvation as a weapon of war, and forced the disappearance of thousands. The world had not seen atrocities on this scale since the Second World War – and what we are uncovering in Ukraine.

“These crimes are well documented. In addition to the Caesar file, the international community has amassed hundreds of thousands of government documents linking these crimes directly to Bashar al Assad. Stephen Rapp, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, has argued we have more evidence against the Assad regime than we did against the Nazis in Nuremberg.

“In a previous hearing, we heard directly from the Caesar Act’s namesake about the regime’s continued atrocities. Today, we will hear from another brave Syrian who risked his life to bring these accounts of gross human rights violations to the international community.

“Accountability for Assad has been slow and mechanisms are few. Neither Syria nor the United States are members of the International Criminal Court, and it remains a dangerously politicized body.  

“However, nations have begun to pursue accountability under their own domestic courts. I was heartened to learn of the recent conviction of a senior Assad regime official in Germany, who was involved in the torture of Syrian civilians on a mass scale. This is a start, but we need to do more. We must establish a more robust accountability mechanism.

“Turning to Syria policy moving forward – the United States has long-maintained a policy of economic and diplomatic isolation to force a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, that longstanding policy is beginning to crumble, and I remain concerned this administration has accepted Assad’s rule as a foregone conclusion. Worse, I fear this administration is tacitly approving outreach to the regime. 

“Caesar sanctions enforcement has been lacking, and the administration’s support for energy deals through Syria to Lebanon likely violates the Caesar Act. Further, I’m deeply concerned with the administration’s funding of so-called “early recovery” projects in regime-held areas. These activities blur the line against Caesar-prohibited reconstruction, and open the door to normalization with Assad.

“The administration’s stated Syria policy consists of four lines of effort: counter the Islamic State, maintain the ceasefire in Syria, expand humanitarian access, and seek accountability for crimes. While all of these are laudable, it is my concern that the administration’s efforts have expanded beyond humanitarian access and into the realm of reconstruction, while we’ve seen little movement on seeking accountability for the Assad regime

“It is vitally important that the U.S. hold the line against rehabilitating the regime. Current and future autocrats are watching our actions. We cannot send a message that we will forget these atrocities over time and welcome Assad back to the international community.

“In that light, I am gravely concerned by the number of our Arab partners who have increased formal and informal relationships with the regime in recent years, including through the establishment of official diplomatic outposts and pursuit of economic relationships. The UAE’s outreach has been particularly problematic.

“The law on normalization and reconstruction is clear. Any engagement with the Assad regime, whether diplomatic or economic, must be met with a firm response using the tools laid out in the Caesar Act. We must ensure our policy doesn’t entrench the Assad regime, energizes progress under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and is commensurate with American values.

“In that light, I ask unanimous consent that a recent video documenting regime war crimes in Tadamon, Syria be added to the record. While exceptionally difficult to watch, it is vitally important we put these crimes out into the light of day.

“To the witnesses again, thank you for being here. The chairman and I have talked about the situation and the problems. Unfortunely, we get a lot of witnesses that come here and just reiterate what we’ve said. We’ve outlined the problems. We’ve given you the tools with the Caesar Act. We want to hear how you are going to use them to do what you have said is the policy of the United States.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.

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