WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full committee hearing on the war in Syria, with witness testimony from Caesar, a Syrian military defector for whom the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act was named after, Mr. Omar Alshogre, a former Syrian prisoner and current director of detainee issues at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and Mr. Raed Al Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets):
Chairman Risch gave the following opening statement, as prepared for delivery:
“This month we mark the solemn 9th anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Nine years of barrel bombs and chemical weapons; nine years of targeted attacks against medical and humanitarian workers; nine years of the most horrific human rights atrocities of our time. Make no mistake, accountability for these crimes lays squarely on the shoulders of Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, and his Russian and Iranian backers, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah.
“Assad has weaponized every facet of the Syrian government against his own people on an industrial scale. More than 560,000 people have been killed. More than 100,000 Syrians have perished in Assad’s notorious prisons and Americans, including Austin Tice, have been wrongfully detained. Today, we reiterate the demand for his immediate release and return.
“For too many young Syrians, war and suffering is all they have ever known. Together with their parents, they suffer the physical and mental wounds of prolonged warfare. Those who escaped as refugees risk arbitrary arrest, interrogation, and torture by the regime’s secret police upon their return.
“The conflict has now entered an intensified stage with Assad, Russia, and Iran mounting a brutal and continuous offensive against Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold, Idlib.
“More than 960,000 civilians have been newly displaced since December, many of whom fled other parts of Syria and now find themselves caught in a death trap. Beyond the onslaught of tanks and bombs and other weapons of war, they face the immediate risk of freezing to death during a brutal winter without access to adequate shelter and food.
“Russia behaves as both an arsonist and a firefighter. Putin pours gasoline on the flames of conflict while simultaneously seeking a seat at the table by holding sham talks in Astana.
“The UN recently confirmed what we had already suspected: that Russia, in addition to Assad, is committing war crimes in Syria. Russian planes are carrying out attacks in order to kill first responders and bomb hospitals into oblivion.
“It’s clear that the Russian government has no interest in bringing peace or helping the Syrian people, but sees the conflict as a way to grow its geopolitical importance. Russia’s quest for relevance is actively killing Syrians.
“Iran, which continues to flood Syria with fighters, is no better.
“This will not do. The Syrian people deserve better.
“We remain committed to the Geneva-brokered peace process. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 remains our guide post – a complete ceasefire, a Syrian-led political process, a new constitution drafted by Syrians, and free and fair elections.
“I was pleased to see the UN constitutional committee convene, even if the regime has resisted the committee’s work at every turn. Assad is not serious about peace. He benefits from the status quo and will stop at nothing to remain in power.
“A deeply fractured Syria will never heal absent accountability and reconciliation. The regime and its supporters must be held accountable for the atrocities they’ve perpetrated.
“This is precisely why I championed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which authorizes sanctions against the Assad regime and its backers.
“It has been a long road to get here. I was proud to sponsor this legislation as a standalone bill last year, and to pass it out of this committee. And I worked hard to see it included in last year’s annual defense bill, which is now law.
“I am deeply humbled to have the namesake for this bill here with us today. What began with one man’s courageous effort to expose Assad’s atrocities has become the means by which we will hold Assad and his backers accountable.
“As with any law, implementation is key. I am working closely with the administration to ensure that the Caesar Act is fully implemented and impunity is ended.
“In the face of such depravity and destruction, the strength and resilience of the Syrian people gives me hope. Our witnesses today are remarkable examples of human bravery and grit. They have endured immeasurable suffering, yet continue to work tirelessly to end impunity and protect the innocent.
“With that, I will ask Ranking Member Menendez if he wishes to make any opening remarks.”
The witness testimonies are available on foreign.senate.gov.