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.