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Chairman Kerry Opening Statement at Hearing on Syria Options

Washington, DC – This morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) delivered the following statement at a hearing that assessed the United States’ role and policy options in Syria.

“Bashar al-Assad has lost all governing legitimacy except what is at the barrel of a gun or tank - both at home and abroad. If he simply maintained the status quo, it would be not just a moral outrage but also a severe blow to the democratic aspirations of the Middle East.” 


The full text of Chairman Kerry’s hearing statement, as delivered, is below:

“Thank you all for coming.

The stakes for American values and interests in the unfolding confrontation in Syria are important.  At least 10,000 civilians have died, and hundreds of thousands more have either been displaced or are at grave risk of harm. The humanitarian crisis has engulfed Syria’s neighbors, and we know that refugees and displaced populations can be the spark for large-scale violence.

What happens in Syria will have a direct impact on regional stability and on the security of our friends and allies throughout the Middle East. We all understand a full-fledged civil war there would have devastating consequences for Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. And I’m increasingly concerned about apparent Al Qaeda involvement in Syria and the disposition of the country’s biological, chemical and advanced conventional weapons.

Bashar al-Assad has lost all governing legitimacy except what is at the barrel of a gun or tank - both at home and abroad. If he simply maintained the status quo, it would be not just a moral outrage but also a severe blow to the democratic aspirations of the Middle East.  It would also reinforce the interests of both nations and groups hostile to transparency to the rule of law broadly shared by the population of a country or to peaceful transition. 

Based on two strategic prerogatives—one – avoiding chaos, while two – ensuring that the fundamental aspirations of the Syrian people are met—it is clear that the best outcome would in fact be a managed transition. Assad and the current regime, under any circumstances, it seems to me, it’s very difficult to understand how they could be doing anything but living on borrowed time – how much time is obviously a serious question. The longer the endgame, the messier the aftermath. While our ultimate goal is an open and inclusive political process that paves the way for a new government, it is difficult to see any outcome acceptable to the people of Syria that would involve Assad remaining in power for a prolonged period.  

The question now is what can be done to send that message clearly and effectively. While it's true that America’s influence all by ourselves in Syria is limited, we're not without options, particularly in partnership with the broader international community.

Last weekend’s UN Security Council Resolution is a first step that puts the Syrian government on notice:  the time for false promises is over and the time to end the violence is now. We need to work with the Russians and Chinese to help them understand that while we appreciate their positive involvement in approving a monitoring mission for Syria their responsibilities do not end with the monitoring mission that is being put into place.

Progress requires bold steps from all sides:

First, with the creation of the Friends of Syria group, there is now a multilateral mechanism for supporting the Syrian National Council and other political groups with humanitarian aid and non-lethal supplies, including communications equipment. I understand that Secretary Clinton is meeting today with a subset of the Friends of Syria in Paris. I urge our colleagues to support these efforts.

Second, there are still serious questions about the various opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. We need to continue to work with these and other groups to encourage them to coalesce into a viable and inclusive political force.  It may be that they can’t – or don’t – unify as an organization, but they certainly need to achieve unity of purpose. They urgently need to present to Syria and the world a coherent vision of a tolerant and pluralistic post-Assad society.

Third, we need to consider how best to support the Free Syrian Army. The Administration has committed to provide non-lethal assistance. In addition, we should work with the Free Syrian Army’s leadership to promote professionalism and better integration with the political opposition.

Finally, we should weigh the risks and benefits of establishing “safe zones” near Syria’s border areas. Safe zones entail military action and would require significant support from regional powers, and therefore requires a more significant vetting and strategic work-through.  I believe the unity of the Council and coordination of the FSA must develop significantly before one could create those zones.  But our interests and values demand that we consider how they could be constructed and what this would mean for Syria’s neighbors.

We also need to clarify what Syria’s neighbors – immediate and near neighbors – need to do here.  It seems to me that the Arab league needs to continue to lead, the GCC has provided leadership and they must continue to also, and we obviously need to understand what is achievable by all of us together.

Right now, we need patient, clear-eyed diplomacy—combining elements of political and economic pressure—to influence calculations in Damascus. But given the potential for further sectarian violence and regional destabilization, we need to also think through carefully about what comes next. We need to prepare for the worst, even as we hope for the best.

And that means no option can or should be taken off the table. The Pentagon— appropriately—is drawing up contingency plans for the transition. Obviously one needs plans to guarantee the safeguard of both chemical and biological weapons. To reach agreement on realistic options going forward, we need to continue the consultation process that’s taking place.  I might add that even the act of developing contingency plans helps to send the right message to all parties involved that we’re serious about the prospects of transition.

So there’s a lot to discuss here this morning and to help us explore these issues, we want to welcome distinguished witnesses:

Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes is Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and until recently was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. 

Dr. Murhaf Jouejati is a Syrian-born expert in Middle East affairs and Professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

And Dr. Jon Alterman holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and is Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

We thank all of you for taking the time to come today and bringing your expertise to the committee.”


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