Chairman Royce Remarks at Syrian American Medical Society EventPress Release
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke at an event hosted by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), where he discussed the current humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Chairman Royce’s remarks (as prepared for delivery) follow:
Thank you for having me here this morning to talk about the enduring tragedy that is Syria—and the incredible service being done there by members of SAMS.
The sad reality is that we have been talking about the tragedy of Syria for years. Indeed, it was more than four and a half years when the world began to watch the destruction of Syria–with civilians caught between the torture and abuse of the Assad Regime and the terror of the Islamic State.
What started as peaceful demonstrations for democratic reforms – chants of “peaceful, peaceful,” – has become a catastrophe.
Indeed, this is the worst humanitarian crisis of a generation—more than 300,000 people killed, more than 4 million driven to become refugees and another 7 million displaced within the country. And now Russia has entered the theater—not in an effort to shorten the conflict but in an effort to extend Syria’s agony by propping up the Assad regime and bombing civilian areas.
Everyone here understands the role that barrel bombs play in Assad’s daily assault on the people of Syria. As the Committee heard in recent testimony – it’s not just the deadly nature of the attacks that has been so effective at destroying lives—it is the psychological effect of not knowing when death might drop from the skies.
As one expert witness [Dr. Annie Sparrow] told our Committee: “together, the barrel bombs and chlorine bombs create maximum trauma and terror. And the way (Assad) is using both currently to target civilians and hospitals is spectacularly effective in driving the exodus of millions of refugees and compounding this public health crisis, which as regional and global repercussions.”
Dr. Mohamed Tennari, a valiant member of SAMS, described for the Committee the sound of the helicopters overhead, the thump of exploding bombs, and the overwhelming smell of bleach in the air. This brave man struggled to find the words to describe the terrible effects this toxic gas has on the body—foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath and the agony as this gas turns to acid in the lungs of its victims — many of them children.
The President’s early declaration of this conflict as “someone else’s civil war” seemed to paralyze the United States from taking even some modest steps beyond our generous humanitarian relief.
Of course, this is an enormous challenge, with no simple solutions. But we have to pick a place to start.
Preferably that place would give protection to everyday citizens who want to live their lives without fear. One that allows people to stay in their homes, their communities—or at the very least in their own country. Rather than taking the desperate step of attempting to cross the Mediterranean at the mercy of human traffickers and unseaworthy vessels. We need to take immediate measures to treat the “symptoms” of this conflict and at long term policy decisions that will treat the roots causes.
Assad’s air power provides him the means to terrorize and slaughter the Syrian people. In the short term we should be providing means of advance warning to civilians—commercial grade radar systems, air raid warning alarms, and the like. These are non-military, off the shelf systems that can make a difference for those scrambling for shelter.
We need to see the Administration take aggressive action to create a safe zone within Syria over which the Assad Regime is barred from dropping bombs – this is something I have been pushing for—and which Russian jets cannot violate.
I was optimistic when it was announced that the Administration reached agreement with Turkey to create a “safe zone” between Aleppo and the Turkish border. But many weeks later, we’ve heard few details and seen even less action aimed at creating it. And Russia’s aggressive flight patterns have seen them violate Turkey’s airspace and bomb areas held by opposition forces—without any ISIS fighters in sight.
I am also aware that the Russians have adopted the Assad regime’s habits of targeting medical facilities, ambulances, and “double tap” strikes — where they wait for first responders to arrive and then drop a second bomb.
On the ground we need to better utilize support for the moderate opposition so that they are strong enough to take and control territory that can be a safe haven—one with sufficient security on the ground to allow communities to rebuild.
This means better use of the Congressionally approved “train and equip” resources, more specific support for those moderate forces facing ISIS and Assad, and continue support for civil society and local governance efforts so that basic services can be provided.
Training just dozens of fighters over the past year, as the Administration has feebly done, is foreign policy malfeasance. We need to do better.
And we cannot tolerate an expanded role for Russia and Iran in Syria. It is their money, weapons, and fighters who prop up the Assad Regime. Their expanded role inside of Syria—with uniformed Russian soldiers offloading weapons and materials and establishing what appears to be a longer-term presence on Syria soil, flying sorties focused on pounding civilian communities and opposition forces rather than targeting ISIS—compliments the fighters, funds and materials sent by the Iranian regime and their proxy, Hezbollah. These governments don’t want peace. They benefit and thrive on conflict and death.
The Administration should be leading the fight for additional international sanctions aimed at cutting off the flow of helicopter and plane parts, money, and fighters from these patron states.
For several weeks, the Obama Administration has been telling Congress that it will be aggressive in standing up to Iranian meddling across the region – now they’ll have to deliver on those promises.
Many of these measures are demanding. The US cannot do this on its own. It would need strong support and participation from our allies and partners in the region – and it is encouraging that the UK and France are stepping up and looking to do more.
It is time for the Administration to stop looking away from Syria as “someone else’s civil war” and instead move decisively, with our regional partners, to give the Syrian people some semblance of safety.
The atrocities committed by Assad set an example for other dictators and rogue states on how to get away with widespread murder. The Foreign Affairs Committee was the first to show Cesar’s pictures of the thousands brutalized by the Assad regime.
I am not the first to acknowledge that even with additional action, this conflict will not cease overnight, nor will Syria re-emerge in the near term as a self-sufficient state. But we cannot allow terror to push millions more from their homes. We cannot let Assad slaughter the Syrian people. And we cannot allow Iran and Russia to perpetuate generations of conflict.
What we can do what is take the necessary steps to protect the most vulnerable – rather than wait for more tiny bodies to be dug from rubble or washed up on beaches.
In closing, I want to thank you again for the incredible work that you do. For the bravery and tenacity with which you focus on treating those in need. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.