WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on the Trump Administration’s strategy in Syria:
I view the crisis in Syria as one of the greatest tragedies of our time. I have dealt with the Syria issue the entire length of time I’ve been in Congress – even when very few people were talking about Syria. But now, these past years—it’s just impossible. It really makes you cry. Hundreds of thousands of innocents murdered at the hands of a brutal dictator—a butcher—Bashar al Assad. Barrel bombs and chemical weapons used against civilians.
We’ve seen the images of his cruelty on shocking display, here in this room, when we hosted Caesar, the military photographer who defected to show the world the barbarity of the regime. Millions upon millions more driven from their homes—a massive humanitarian crisis. And from the outside, a collective failure of global leadership to put a stop to the violence year after year after year. It breaks my heart. And it’s a failure of leadership in this country as well as around the world.
Anyone who’s followed our work knows that Syria isn’t a new topic for the Foreign Affairs Committee or for myself.
More than 15 years ago, I authored the Syria Accountability Act to push back against the Syrian government’s presence in Lebanon and crack down on a range of other harmful activities.
Early in the civil war, I called on the Obama Administration to support the Free Syrian Army in its fight against the brutal Assad regime, and I introduced the Free Syria Act—the first legislation to train and equip the Syrian opposition. I’ve authored legislation, named for Caesar, to crack down on Assad’s enablers—Moscow, Tehran—and to make sure American reconstruction dollars don’t ultimately end up in the regime’s hands.
So I bring some experience to the issue when I say how deeply concerned I am by the Trump Administration’s policy—scattershot policy—toward this war-torn country. Now the previous administration didn’t do anything either, so it’s just a matter of nobody is doing the right thing as far as I’m concerned, and this is one of reasons we’ve gotten ourselves into the mess we’re in.
I remain particularly baffled by the precipitous withdrawal that President Trump announced late last year. That would have been an utter disaster.
It would have emboldened Assad, Russia, and Iran. It would have given them license to run roughshod over the country and an unimaginable cost of innocent life. It would have signaled to the world that the United States was withdrawing from one of the most serious hotspots, and leaving our partners and allies twisting in the wind.
It was remarkable to see a Secretary of Defense, Mr. Mattis, resign in protest – and I take my hat off to him for doing the only thing he could have done. That’s just how ill-conceived that announcement was.
Though the Administration swiftly went into damage control and walked back this announcement, damage had already been done. What does it say about our credibility on the global stage? What sort of signal do our friends take from this whipsawed foreign policy? Or our adversaries? It’s a mess.
And I worry the Administration may now be compounding that mess by signaling to Turkey that they can wade farther into the fray. We have all these reports that President Trump changed his position on Syria and said the United States would leave, after he had an extensive conversation with Mr. Erdogan of Turkey. It that is true and that is the case, it’s really a big mistake.
Turkey has been playing a destabilizing role with its campaign against our allies, the Kurds, in northeast Syria. Following the President’s recent call with President Erdogan—another strongman of whom President Trump seems strangely enamored—Turkey seems emboldened.
We need a serious policy that pushes for a stop to the violence and the start to a political resolution. Otherwise this cycle of carnage and death is simply going to repeat again and again and again. I’ve had a friend send me recent emails and other things showing me what’s been happening just this week with the barbarity in parts of Syria and the world just looks the other way and talks and talks and talks. And meanwhile civilians are being murdered one by one or ten by ten and it just doesn’t stop, and it just breaks my heart.
Every March, when we mark another year of this tragedy, I wonder what more we could have done to try to prevent the next grim anniversary. The legislation I’ve introduced would give the Administration more tools, but the Administration needs to devise a real strategy and flex the muscles of American leadership to help break the status quo.
Again, I’m glad we have the Administration’s senior official on this situation with us today. As I’ve said before he has a long and distinguished record of which I certainly approve and certainly worked with him and know how smart he is. of I look forward to hearing your testimony.
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