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Chairman Menendez Remarks on Training, Equipping Moderate Vetted Syrian Opposition

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following remarks, as prepared for delivery, on the Senate floor regarding training and equipping the moderate vetted Syrian opposition.     

“M. President, I rise to support the President’s request for authorization to stand up a Title 10, overt train and equip mission for vetted, moderate Syrian opposition. The hearing I held yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid out specifics on how the President is moving forward in building the anti-ISIL coalition: that we will undertake targeted air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and that we will train and equip a Syrian opposition force committed to a pluralistic, free Syria.

“This is a multi-faceted plan, and we heard from both Secretary Kerry and a second panel with regional experts that coalition partners are ready to contribute – in real terms – not just empty words. The ISIL threat is grave and urgent. We must stand with our partners in the region to confront this barbarism in the interest of all the individuals being brutalized by ISIL – but also because regional stability, and European and U.S. security demand it.

“Training and equipping a fighting Syrian force is one urgent element in the broader plan. We in the Senate must provide this authority as our colleagues in the House did yesterday. In Iraq, we have the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces committed to combating ISIL and partnering with us to do so. At this point in time, we do not have such a force to partner with in Syria.

“Let’s be clear-eyed about what this challenge is – it is messy and complicated and not at all easy. There is no silver bullet. But without a trained, equipped, and capable moderate opposition force to fill the void as we conduct airstrikes against ISIL, we would essentially be opening the door to Assad and his Russia and Iran-backed regime forces to regain lost territory. Imagine how our adversaries will celebrate if we fail to build a force equipped, trained, and committed to defeating the barbarism of ISIL and Assad.

“The Administration has answered the question of “why now”?  Why train these forces now, four years into this civil war? Their answers are clear: We have been working with these moderate, armed groups for over 2 years now and we know them. Second, there is no alternative to building a local opposition force to take on the fight in Syria. Third, the region is standing with us.

“Let’s keep in mind that the truly remarkable development is that Saudi Arabia is willing to publically discuss its support, and publically disclose that it will host and contribute to our train and equip mission. Other Gulf countries are willing to fund this mission, and help with recruiting efforts. No longer are our partners willing to quietly, support from the shadows. They view the threat coming from Iraq and Syria with such urgency that they are going public loudly and assertively.

“I am clear-eyed about the enormity of this challenge. There is tremendous risk, but at this point – given the rapidity of ISIL’s advance and the savagery of its actions – we must be willing to take some risk to degrade this brutal, barbaric organization. The fact is – Sunni neighbors across the region are lining up to join this mission, and the moderate Syrian forces that we will train can pressure ISIL in Syria. The Iraqis pressure ISIL from Iraq. And we will pressure ISIL from the air.

“The question is why now. The response to the question is this: As you all know I led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in passing legislation last year to increase lethal assistance to the moderate rebels battling Assad.

But we do not get do-overs so we cannot change what was not done. We can’t change what has already happened. And we can’t change what exists on the ground in Syria today. But we can influence what happens going forward and work together to set conditions for how it ends.

“Robert Ford, our exceptional U.S. Ambassador to Syria, our greatest expert on Syria and the rebels, and until recently our senior State Department official working with the moderate Syrian opposition could not have been more compelling yesterday. In response to questioning about whether a moderate armed opposition still exists for us to train and arm, he said:  Yes they exist, yes they are already fighting ISIL, and yes they share our view that a radical, extremist Islamic state should not be imposed by force on Syria and that this conflict will only end with a political deal, or negotiated settlement.

“In response to questions about whether there is recruitment potential, can we find enough fighters who are moderate, who will pass our vetting standards, to receive our training – he said: Yes, we know them, we provided them with non-lethal assistance which they have used responsibly, and we have talked politics with them. In fact, Mr. Ford said that the problem has always been that there were more willing fighters than guns and ammunition. In response to whether the moderate armed Syrian opposition shares our goal for degrading ISIL, the answer is also yes.

“The force we train and arm will fight ISIL, because ISIL is threatening their supply lines and has butchered hundreds of members of the moderate Syrian opposition. In Syria, the moderate opposition has been mired in a two-front war against ISIL on one side and Assad and his regime backers on the other for years. The language in the amendment to the CR reflects this reality – we are training and arming a force that will defend the Syrian people from ISIL attacks and also promote conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria – in other words, going after Assad’s security forces.

“Finally, Ambassador Ford commented that if we do not go forward with this proposal to train and equip the moderate armed opposition, Assad will likely become even more convinced that his strategy all along has worked!

His strategy is to convince us that he is the only viable alternative to ISIL and radical extremists, and that we will eventually resign ourselves to working with him.

“Again, the only course of action at this point in time is for us to commit to the grinding work of building a viable alternative – this is the moderate, armed Syrian opposition. Again, this is not going to happen overnight, but it certainly will not happen if there is not a moderate, capable alternative to Assad – a group that is neither that radical, barbarism of ISIL or the nihilistic, barrel bomb dropping Assad. We must be realistic if we are going to degrade and destroy ISIL.

“Frankly, I still have many questions about the way forward – and I intend to work with the administration on to assure that this plan is sound and the strategy is effective.  But I have no question that this action is needed now. I fully intend, through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to continue to explore, vet, and ultimately craft what a possible AUMF should look like. We need to get it right, not just fast.

“With that, M. President, I yield the floor.”