Engel Remarks on Syria

April 18, 2018

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at a committee hearing on the Middle East:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for calling this hearing. To our witnesses, welcome to the Foreign Affairs Committee and thank you for your service.

“Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, for being here today, and it’s good to see you again.  I appreciate the excellent work you’re doing. Ambassador Satterfield, our first work on Syria reaches back about fifteen years or so.  So I appreciate your service as well. 

“Still, I wish we had a permanent Assistant Secretary in place. Nearly 15 minutes—15 months, I’m sorry—into this Administration, the White House only sent a nomination to the Senate last week.

“Syria has been a large focus of mine. Many years ago, I think it was more than fifteen, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and I introduced the Syria Accountability Act, which was passed into law with bipartisan support. So, we have a huge number of concerns about the Middle East, but today I’m going to focus on Syria.

“It’s a shame that it takes a chemical-weapons attack to grab the world’s attention when it comes to Syria. After all, the vast majority of Assad’s half-million victims didn’t meet their ends in a chemical attack. It often wasn’t sarin or chlorine that drove millions more from their homes.

“For those who have lost loved ones in these seven years of brutal slaughter, the pain and the grief are no different whether they died in a chemical attack, or in a hospital that was leveled to the ground, or on a crowded street when a barrel bomb detonated.

“Assad is a murderer. A butcher. His brutality is sickening. And it goes on every day.

“Yet I want to be clear: Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons is an abhorrent crime that demanded immediate consequences.

“Late last week, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France acted together to dole out these consequences. The use of these weapons cannot stand, and whoever would use them—and whoever would support those who do—cannot go unpunished.

“But I want to be equally clear: if the Administration plans ongoing military action, Congress must first authorize it—or prevent it. Even under the most generous interpretation of the War Powers Resolution, the 60-day clock started ticking when the President notified Congress of the attack.

“Now, if anyone here feels a sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone.  A year ago, we were debating the same issue.  Assad uses chemical weapons, the United States fires off some missiles, but the killing still continues.

“Why is history repeating itself?  Mainly because the Administration has no strategy for dealing with the crisis in Syria.

“That’s why, regardless of what happens next, we need to hear from the Administration. Even if the President intends for last week’s airstrike to be another one-off response, the White House is still past due in laying out a strategy for Syria to Congress and the American people. As part of last year’s Defense Authorization bill, we required the White House to come to us with a strategy by February 1st. That deadline has come and gone.  I hope you’ll tell us today that the strategy will be sent to Capitol Hill without any more delay.

“The incoherence is plain to see.  Over the last year, the President has publicly disagreed with his top advisors about our path forward in Syria.  And his off-the-cuff remarks about leaving Syria and reckless rhetoric have at times emboldened Assad.

“Just prior to last year’s chemical-weapons attack, the President said we would have to accept Assad as a fact of life. And shortly before the most recent attack, the President suggested a precipitous withdrawal from Syria.  Rather than forming a policy that would help to resolve this crisis, I fear the President has only made it worse.

“I’m not holding my breath, but I continue to hope that the Administration will bring us a plan that will push for an end of violence, that will ease a political transition, and that will help lay the groundwork for a future for Syria in which Bashar al-Assad has no role. This is certainly no easy task, and I’d be the first one to acknowledge that the previous administration should have done more.

“But there are still plenty of good ideas to help craft a policy like this. In fact, as the Chairman mentioned, I’ve introduced two bills that I think would help move us towards those goals.

“The Caesar Syrian Protect Civilian Protection Act passed the House unanimously last year. It started with bipartisan good work, as usual, from this Committee. This bill would crack down on Assad’s enablers, namely Moscow and Tehran, who serve as lifelines to the barbaric regime. I have to say, after the President personally overrode his own administration’s plan to sanction Russia for its support of Assad, I think this bill is needed now more than ever. I hope the Senate will act on it soon.

“The other bill, as the Chairman mentioned, is my No Assistance for Assad Act, which I introduced with Mr. Kinzinger, and which this Committee voted to advance a few weeks ago. This bill would restrict reconstruction funding for any area still controlled by Assad.

“One bill would help end the violence now. The other would make sure that when this crisis has ended, no American tax dollars are going to help Assad cling to power.

“We cannot overstate the scope of the tragedy in Syria. Assad has the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women, and children on his hands. That this catastrophe has been allowed to go on for so long is a global failure that will leave a black mark on this era of human history. But we cannot throw up our hands in resignation. If America is to remain a leader on the global stage, we must continue working to end the bloodshed.

“I again thank our witnesses. I thank the Chairman. I look forward to hearing how this Administration intends to tackle this problem—and the range of other challenges with which we’re grappling in the Middle East.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.”

# # #