POMED Notes: Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia chaired by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) held a hearing on the U.S. Government’s policies towards the ever-changing situation in Syria and what kind of policy stances the White House should take in appropriately dealing with Syria. Fredric C. Hof, Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs at the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace at the State Department was present to testify before the subcommittee on U.S. policy towards Syria. Congressional members were able to make opening statements and then question the witness.
For full event notes, continue reading. Or, click here for the PDF.
Chabot opened the subcommittee with an introduction to the topic of the hearing. Chabot stressed that the Assad regime was “committing crimes against humanity” against the Syrian people, and emphasized the abuse and killing of children. He further noted that currently the UN puts the death toll in Syria at 5,000 with more than 300 dead children. Chabot noted with some disappoint the slow reaction of the Obama administration to respond to events on the ground and noted that it took “1,900 dead before Obama called for President Bashar Al’Assad to step down.” He further stated that the administration’s policy of encouraging nonviolence in the face of this brutal violence was ill-advised and that “it is not our prerogative to tell the opposition what to do in terms of violence. The Assad regime initiated the violence, and the Syrian people have the right to defend themselves.” Chabot concluded that while international consensus is “nice” the United States should lead, especially in the face of continued resistance from China and Russia on the United Nations Security Council.
Ranking Leader Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) was next to make an opening statement. Ackerman stated that he felt American policy towards Syria “has moved in the right direction.” Still, Ackerman asked “when will American leadership move to get the international community to recognize the horror of the Assad Regime?” Ackerman also discussed the issue of splits between internal activists and external leaders and splits between army defectors and civil society leaders, within the opposition, to which Ackerman sardonically stated “welcome to representative democracy.” Ackerman further stated that contemplation of the end of the Assad regime also brought up the prospect that a future government will “likely be organized around religious identities and may not be our natural allies. These new Arab governments will take forms we would not take ourselves but may be legitimate for their people.” Ackerman concluded that Congress must remain consistent advocates for peace and democracy.
Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Robert Turner (R-NY), Brian Higgins (D-NY), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Christopher Murphy (D-CT) all expressed varying degrees of support for the Syrian people, the hope to remove President Assad from power, and working with partners in the region –especially Turkey- to do what is best for the region and for Syria.
Hof then gave an opening statement to the subcommittee. Hof stated that for nine months while the Syrian people protested peacefully, “the president of Syria elected to respond to peaceful protests with violence and brutality and for 9 months he has stayed on course. Is it any wonder that the peaceful protests threaten to morph into violent protests.” Hof further stated that in his opinion “Bashar would rather risk civil war rather then implement the modest reforms called for by the Arab League.” Hof then sought to give a message to the people within the Syrian regime: “your president claims to see, hear, know nothing. Whether you are a private or a high-ranking minster official, your president will not take responsibility for the crimes of this regime.” Hof went on to discuss the Syrian opposition and specifically, the Syria National Council. Hof also stressed that the longer the regime stays in power, the more chance Syria dissolves into a bloody sectarian conflict which would be disastrous for Syria and the region. Still, Hof noted that reviewing how to get Bashar to step down peacefully and if he doesn’t, how to get him to leave, is problematic. Hof also stressed “that no one, the U.S. least of all, is encouraging a militarization of the conflict. My bottom line is this: Assad policy of oppression is running the economy off the rails, but if he is willing to run the Pyongyang of the Levant, he will remain for some time.” In conclusion, Hof stated “that we need to find a way to end the regime without damaging the Syrian state too much and also trying to keep the unity of the Syrian people.”
Questions were then taken from Congressional members and answered by the witness. Reps. Chabot, Turner, Higgins all asked questions regarding the armed opposition and specifically the Free Syria Army (FSA). A common theme was also a discussion of self-defense and the State Department’s position regarding the opposition using self-defense. Hof responded that, “there will be no sermons from me or the administration about people not having the right to defend themselves. This regime has tried from the beginning to produce the result that it is facing today.” Hof did stress that the Assad Regime does not know how to deal with a peaceful opposition, which is why it is trying very hard to channel the opposition towards a violent response, which is something the Regime knows how to handle. Regarding the FSA, Hof stated that it was hard to know how solid an organization the FSA was, but “it’s clear that several thousand soldiers have voted with their feet, but it does not however appear that the FSA is the kind of organization which one would have a formal order of battle analysis. They do not appear to be organized in like a conventional military.”
Higgins asked about sanctions and whether they were working. Hof responded that while the Department of Treasury was more qualified to answer this question, the State Department had identified 7 different categories under which to target the regime. Hof also noted that Turkey, the Arab League and the European Union had either followed suit with targeted sanctions within these categories or were making progress in the right direction.
Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) asked about pressure from the international community and whether the Arab League had any actual influence with the Assad Regime and whether or not the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be involved. Hof responded that “it is difficult to measure the precise amount of influence the Arab League has with President Assad, but the steps the Arab League has taken with Syria has sent the regime into a state of shock. The message from the Arab League is: Syria is important, but the Syrian people are more important.” Regarding a potential role of the ICC, Hof could not say what the court’s potential role would be in the long-term. Hof also stressed that some of these decisions would have to be made by the Syrian opposition.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) asked about the situation of the Christian community within Syria and whether the opposition- specifically the SNC- was doing its part to ensure future legal protections for minorities in a new Syria. Hof stated that the State Department has stressed two points to the SNC and the Syrian opposition in general: 1) it is absolutely essential that minorities whether they be Christians or others, be adequately represented on the inside of these organizations and “there is significant progress being made in this direction.” Hof also noted that the SNC is actively recruiting minorities and having some success; 2) that the Syrian opposition has to be absolutely relentless in its messaging that all Syrians- but in particular to minorities –that there is a place for all Syrians to within Syrian society and that they will be protected.
Finally, Chabot asked about the spillover effect of the conflict- specifically within Lebanon. Hof noted that the Lebanese very worried about the potential implications for Lebanon as a result of the situation in Syria. Hof discussed the movement of refugees into Lebanon and the limited capacity of the Lebanese government to handle a large influx of refugees. Hof also noted that “the capacity of Lebanese security forces is certainly being challenged [by the situation].” Hof stated that this issue is a priority for the embassy in Lebanon.