POMED Notes: Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Syria
On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to discuss the Syrian crisis. The Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-AZ) gave opening statements. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey were the witnesses.
For the full text of the hearing notes, continue reading below, or click here for the PDF
Carl Levin, who described Bashar Al Assad’s actions as “crimes against humanity,” gave an overview of the situation to date, including the Russia/China veto of the U.N. resolution and the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis. He said that in order to attempt an international consensus, several questions must be addressed. Levin raised concern about the capabilities and objectives of the opposition, which has yet to form a single political party to serve as its voice. He also said military options cannot be ignored, and it is important to discuss possible actions that could be taken and which actors would be the leads in carrying those actions out.
John McCain expressed frustration with the ongoing violence in Syria, and urged that the U.S. take stronger action against Assad. “Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower,” he said, which would continue to support the opposition. He also believes that Assad is fully capable of thinking he can wipe out the entire opposition through violence and remain in power. Military intervention would change this belief, McCain argued, force Assad to give up power without further bloodshed, and give Syrians an opportunity to move into a peaceful democratic transition
Leon Panetta gave three fundamental principles of the U.S. administration that have been considered during the Arab Spring: it opposes the use of violence and repression by regimes against their own people, it has supported the exercise of universal human rights, and it has supported political and economic reforms that can meet the aspirations of ordinary people in the region. He then said that because with the U.N. General Assembly’s support of the Arab League’s transition plan, there are four tracks to turn consensus into action: working to increase diplomatic and political isolation of the Assad regime, providing emergency humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, working with Friends of Syria and other groups to encourage opposition to unify and lay a groundwork for a peaceful transition to democracy, and reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with international partners to support efforts and protect the Syrian people, end the violence, and ensure regional stability including military options. Lastly, Panetta said that given the lessons the administration learned in Libya, there are several things it must do: build multi-lateral, international consensus for any action taken, maintain clear regional support from Arab world, make substantial U.S. contributions to the international effort, require a clear legal basis for actions that are taken, and keep all options on the table but recognize that there are limitations of military force especially with U.S. boots on the ground.
Martin Dempsey said that until this point, the military’s role has been to share information with U.S. partners and allies in the region. He did confirm, however, that the military is ready should it be called to action in Syria. Dempsey chose to leave time for discussion during Q&A, but explained that any options for action in Syria will be judged based on suitability, feasibility, and acceptability.
Levin raised a question about whether or not the Arab League transition plan included anything regarding military intervention. Panetta explained that it did not, as the League has the same concerns as the U.S., which is that the level of impact that military action could have is unclear in such a volatile environment. He echoed the concerns of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that she is not prepared to send arms to an opposition that is supported in part by Hamas. Levin also asked about the nature of weaponry that is being supplied to the Assad regime. Though he could not go into much detail, Dempsey said Assad has some security arrangements with others inside and outside the region for a foreign military sales agreement. From Iran, he said Assad is receiving largely smaller caliber rocket propel grenades and anti-tank weapons, whereas he is gaining upper-tier weaponry – including air defense – from some other sources.
McCain strongly urged Panetta for U.S. military action; however, Panetta said that it is still uncertain whether a military mission will achieve a successful peaceful transition to democracy. He said he hesitates to send U.S. troops into such a volatile situation, when there is no sufficient reason for such actions yet. McCain, Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), and Scott Brown (R-MA) all said they believe the U.S. is not taking enough of a lead in the international community when it comes to the Syrian Crisis. Panetta disagreed, saying that the U.S. is leading in Syria, just as it did in Tunisia and Libya, and is working hard toward a multilateral coalition that can support the opposition. He said it is not easy to deal with the complexities of the issue, and added that diplomats, Secretary Clinton, and other governments are working tirelessly to come up with a good solution.
Brown asked if there were any lessons that were taken away from Libya that could be applied to Syria. Dempsey made it very clear that every single country in the Middle East is vastly different from its neighbor, and it is ineffective and impossible to apply one country’s template to another. He said that if the U.S. cannot recognize the unique situation of Syria as a nation and as a revolution, no action would be successful in reaching a solution for the people.