WASHINGTON, DC—Representative Eliot L. Engel, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today entered the following statement into the Committee record of a hearing on American policy in Syria:
Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing. Developments in Syria over the last month have raised a range of new questions and concerns that I hope we can address today.
So I want to welcome our witnesses to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Secretary Patterson, Secretary Nuland: thank you for appearing here today. Thank you for your service. And thank you for your leadership dealing with two difficult regions during difficult times.
Where to begin with Syria?
At this point, the whole situation is such a mess that it might be tempting to throw up our hands and walk away. Let Russia deal with it. But then we’re reminded of the daily toll of those lost to Assad’s barrel bombs, at the hands of ISIS terrorists, or, most recently, to Russian attacks.
We’re reminded of the photographer, known as Caesar, who sat in this room a year ago, showing us in searing, graphic detail what Assad has done to his own people. We’re reminded of the millions of Syrian refugees, their lives shattered and their homes lost. We’re reminded of the real security interests at stake for the United States and our partners in the region. And we’re reminded that American leadership is most important in the most difficult situations, not the easy ones.
Several years ago, I favored a program to train and equip the moderate, vetted Syrian opposition. I wrote legislation that would have pursued that course.
That was early in the conflict when we had an opportunity to change the dynamics on the battlefield. It was before the death toll reached into the hundreds of thousands. It was before millions more spilled over Syria’s borders, creating a refugee crisis that now spans two continents. It was before ISIS rose up as a brutal and destructive force in the region.
So by the time the United States finally enacted a train-and-equip effort, it was far too late. It was also too little. The mission was doomed from the start by its own limited parameters—training vetted rebels only to fight ISIS, while not fully understanding that they would rather oppose the Assad regime.
So where do we go from here?
Today, I hope we can get a clear view of our strategy going forward, and there are a few issues I’d like to focus on.
First, with the demise of the train-and-equip program, we’ve begun assisting forces that are already fighting ISIS. That’s a good step. How can we get these groups what they need quickly and efficiently, and help ensure they are an effective fighting force? And how will the narrow, limited deployment of American Special Operations Forces contribute to this effort?
Next, I’m deeply concerned about Russia’s growing involvement. I simply don’t trust Putin. He’s been driving a crisis in Eastern Europe for more than a year, and now he’s sticking his nose into Syria. His goal is to keep Assad in power – a fact made clear by his targeting of the moderate opposition. How has Russia’s involvement affected our strategy for Syria? And what impact is it likely to have on efforts to achieve a diplomatic resolution of the conflict?
Lastly, what is our strategy for helping deal with the massive refugee crisis? Half of the Syrian population has been displaced. The countries bordering Syria are shouldering a tremendous burden—countries that are already strained by threats to their security and stability. We need a long-term strategy, for the millions without a home and for an increasingly imperiled region. How are we working with countries in the Middle East to help ease the burden? What can we expect to see from our European allies? What changes are we considering in terms of refugees coming here to the United States?
I know these aren’t easy issues, and there aren’t any easy solutions. But nothing will be accomplished by hand-wringing or finger-pointing. Instead, lawmakers and the Administration should work together. We should find ways to strengthen the strategy, and provide whatever’s needed to fully implement it.
And, critical to this effort: Congress should also do its job and pass a new authorization for the use of military force. For more than a year, we’ve stood by while the Administration relied on authorities from 2001 to carry out this mission. It’s past time for the Congress to take action.
So let’s learn from our past mistakes, look toward the future, and focus on new ways to move this crisis toward a resolution.
Again, I thank our witnesses, and I yield back.