WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers ripped apart the Obama administration’s Syria policy at a hearing Thursday, laying into senior diplomats about the lack of reliable opposition partners or a clear U.S. strategy for a conflict that’s raged for more than two years and sent shock waves throughout the Middle East.
The hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came as the prospects for a long-anticipated peace conference in Geneva appear increasingly gloomy. The only positive note struck at the hearing was about progress on the U.S.-Russia plan to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, which have emerged as the administration’s chief concern in the conflict.
Republican senators blasted the administration for striking a deal with chief Assad ally Russia on chemical weapons when there’s no letup to the killings that occur daily by conventional means. Still, neither they nor the Democrats had any real prescriptive words for a conflict that’s spiraled so out of control and drawn so many extremists to the battlefield that some members of the administration are quietly easing off the stated U.S. goal of seeing Assad removed.
“Everybody watching understands that, in essence, we’ve thrown out any real strategy there and are just trying to figure out a way out of this,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “We’ve empowered Assad; we’ve weakened ourselves relative to other issues in the Middle East.”
Using loaded language such as “feckless” and “abandonment” to describe U.S. policy, senators quizzed the diplomats and experts before them, not only on the obstacles blocking the Geneva process, but also on difficulties in the chemical weapons removal efforts. They also asked about the reasons behind America’s failure to deliver on promised aid to the opposition, challenges to the humanitarian effort and the loss of territory for the rebels.
One particularly testy exchange occurred between Corker, the panel’s ranking Republican, and Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, who was recalled in 2011 amid safety concerns. Corker suggested that Ford must be “incredibly embarrassed at where we are” on Syria and, his voice rising, demanded of the envoy: “Do you feel good about what our country is doing with the opposition right now?”
Ford, visibly flustered, replied: “There isn’t a person on my team at the State Department who doesn’t feel frustrated – frustrated – by the Syrian problem in general. But I have to say we do provide support to help them against the regime.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long a proponent of some form of military intervention to tip the war in the rebels’ favor, had the harshest criticism for the administration’s approach. He complained about U.S. diplomats bragging about sending trucks – some pickups from the U.S. were just delivered to the rebel command – at a time when Iran and Russia make sure Assad’s arsenals are full.
McCain said the administration had lodged the U.S. in an “Orwellian situation” in which it was working closely with Russia to dismantle the chemical arsenal but turning a blind eye to the conventional weapons Moscow sent into Syria.
Some voices at the hearing offered a muted defense of the administration’s reluctance to go all-in on Syria. Opinion polls consistently find very little public support for U.S. intervention, especially after the long and bloody experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I also think that we have to approach all of this with a lot of humility, given what we’ve learned after we intervened in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, after what we’ve seen go on in Egypt. So we should have a little humility in the United States about our ability to control events on the ground in these countries,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
With a military stalemate and the world’s most urgent humanitarian catastrophe, “Syria is rapidly becoming the Somalia of the Levant,” warned Frederic Hof, a former Obama administration Syria adviser, who testified in his current role as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a foreign-policy research center in Washington.
While the State Department says the Geneva 2 meeting, so named because it builds on a communique issued there in summer 2012, is on track for next month, there’s no clear buy-in from either Assad’s government or the formal Syrian opposition groups.
The goal of the meeting would be to hammer out the terms for a transitional government to succeed Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. However, Assad has indicated he’d run for president again, and this week he dismissed a senior official who’d been talking with American officials about Geneva 2.
“He has been confident of Iranian and Russian assistance, and he now regards himself as an essential party to a long-term contract having to do with the disposal of chemical weapons,” Hof said. “His foreign minister has made it clear that the person, power and prerogatives of Bashar al Assad will not be up for discussion in a Geneva 2 conference.”
On the opposition side, leaders of the main coalition have set improbable preconditions for the talks and are issuing contradictory statements about their willingness to participate. The notoriously fractious political opposition is derided as exiled, out of touch and lacking legitimacy. The semi-affiliated rebel command is struggling to retain its fighters, who are leaving in droves to join Islamist alliances that more easily obtain money and weapons from foreign donors.
“There is no strategy right now for the opposition. None. There is no strategy,” Corker said. “And for that reason there’s unlikely to be a very successful Geneva 2 conference, because who is it that we’re going to be dealing with? Who is it that we’re going to be bringing to the table?”
Both the regime and opposition delegations would wield veto power over the makeup of the transitional authority. Ford, the U.S. envoy, told the Senate panel that even if the parties can be persuaded to meet in Geneva, “we can expect very tough negotiations.”
Ford, the American official who’s spent the most time interacting with opposition figures and observing the conflict up close, called it a “grinding war of attrition.” He described a complex, shifting mosaic of fighting forces.
The regime’s manpower shortage, he said, had forced a reliance on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, elite Iranian forces and “even Iraqi Shiite militiamen.”
On the opposition side, he said, were two al Qaida factions, “the same al Qaida in Iraq that we used to fight.” They’re sometimes allies but most often enemies of what Ford and others refer to as the “moderate” Free Syrian Army, a catchall term that masks the nuances and divided allegiances of those fighting groups.
And, Ford finished, there were also Kurdish militias on the battlefield.
“The battlefront is more complicated now, but neither the regime nor the various opposition factions can throw a knockout punch in the foreseeable future, and our strategy is based on that assessment,” he told the lawmakers, underlining why the U.S. strategy is focused now on promoting talks based on the Geneva guidelines.
The senators also received a grim update on the human toll – a death tally that’s tripled in the past year to 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees, turning a national crisis regional. In addition, 6.8 million people need help, the equivalent of the combined populations of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut.
“Behind these jarring statistics is the real toll on the Syrian people: the kids who haven’t gone to school for two years, the women who have endured rape and abuse, and the 5 million internally displaced Syrians who don’t have a place to live or enough to eat,” said Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.