Washington—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today delivered the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on Syria:
“This is the final hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the 116th Congress and my final hearing as Chairman. Yesterday, we had a hearing on the Balkans – a region that’s near and dear to my heart – and today we’ll deal with another policy area that’s been a focus of mine for decades: Syria.
“From the Syria Accountability Act, which became law in 2003, my bill, designed to push Syria out of Lebanon to the Free Syria Act in 2012, which was the first legislative proposal to arm the Free Syrian Army – the opposition to Assad, through to the end of my time in Congress – I’ve worked with colleagues on both sides and with outside groups to push back on the murderous regime in Damascus and support the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.
“I have spoken about Syria from this dais more times than I could count in the last few years. And each time, I can’t help but think that there’s no way it could get worse. And then it does. Assad’s henchmen butcher civilians in the street. They drop barrel bombs full of shrapnel and glass, designed to maim and disfigure. ISIS takes over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, barbarically raping, stealing and murdering. Russia’s air force enters the war, further weaponizing the sky.
“The regime gives ultimatums to people who are so hungry that they are eating the grass on the ground: kneel or starve. China and Russia block humanitarian assistance from getting to the people who need it most. The Trump Administration cuts off assistance to the vulnerable people of Syria and threatens to break off our cooperation with our Kurdish partners, threatening any gains against ISIS and alarming our closest partners. I say: Enough! There’s been too much suffering. Too many lives lost. And far, far too little done to stop the carnage. Too little by the United States through different times. Too little by our partners. And this conflict is far from over. It is humanity’s wound, and it continues to fester.
“I remember sitting here as Ranking Member in 2014, surrounded by photographic evidence of torture and violence in Syria’s prisons, listening to the agony of Caesar, a brave military photographer who defected, smuggling thousands of photographs and giving us proof of Syria’s killing machine. That heartbreaking testimony compelled me to introduce the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.
“The Caesar Act imposes the most sweeping sanctions on the Syrian regime and its backers since the start of the civil war. Unless they stop the violence against their own people and take irreversible steps toward peace, the United States must raise the price of their choices. We worked carefully with the humanitarian community to ensure that the Caesar Act would not prevent humanitarian assistance to getting to vulnerable populations. Those Members of Congress who were here then remember those horrific pictures of dead bodies and people just being tortured and killed. They were horrific pictures. They look like they came from the Holocaust in Germany and Poland during World War II. They really just made me sick. So, we are making sure that humanitarian assistance can get to vulnerable populations.
“My bill passed the House three times before becoming law last year. The anniversary of its enactment prompted me to call this hearing today. How is the Caesar Act being used to end the conflict? Are we closer to a more peaceful and stable future for the Syrian people? At a time when ISIS is reconstituting in Syria, how can we ensure that they and other violent terrorist organizations aren’t able to exploit Assad’s continued presence to win the propaganda war? Congress must part of the solution.
“Getting Syria right won’t be easy, as the last few years have shown us. We won’t find a silver bullet in a grand bargain, geopolitical positioning, humanitarian assistance or military action. Ending the violence and getting the Syrian people on a path to a brighter future will require some fresh thinking. I appreciate the fact that the next Administration faces a wide range of pressing crises and critical negotiations around the world, but I would urge: please don’t forget about the Syrian people.
“America is a haven for the oppressed. My grandparents fled the pogroms of Europe more than a century ago. The idea that only two generations later, their grandson would be a member of Congress, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it would only have been a dream to them. But then again, those dreams and ideas are what have drawn immigrants to our shores for generations.
“I hope that my family’s story can demonstrate that we cannot discard victims of persecution and I hope that we can agree that refugees should always have a place in our country. I also hope that the next Administration welcomes Syrians who have been pushed from their homes, as well as desperate people from around the world. At our best, we’re a country of generosity and acceptance. The last four years have not shown us that way, and it’s time to turn things around.”
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