U.S. Policy Toward Syria

Elizabeth Jones
   Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Robert S. Ford
   Ambassador to Syria
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
April 11, 2013

The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES:  February marked two years since Syrian protestors took peacefully to the streets to seek basic rights and protections from their government like others throughout the region. What started out as a peaceful demand for dignity and freedom has become one of the most devastating conflicts of the 21st century.

As you noted, Mr. Chairman, Syrian civilians face an unprecedented level of ruthlessness from the Assad. Every day, the regime targets residential neighborhoods with heavy weapons; short- range ballistic missiles; cluster bombs; surface-to-surface missiles, including scuds.

March was the deadliest month of the conflict with over 6,000 Syrians killed. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, and the number is rising as the fighting in Damascus and southern Syria intensifies. Three (million) to 4 million people are now internally displaced. More than 1.2 million people are refugees. The worst part of this is these numbers could double or even triple by the end of this year, nearly one third of Syria's population.

We're working to alleviate this human suffering. The United States is the largest bilateral humanitarian donor. We're providing nearly $385 million in assistance to those in need across all 14 governorates in Syria and across the neighboring countries.

This money is being spend on emergency medical care and supplies, blankets, food, clean water and shelter. We're sending flour to 50 bakeries in Aleppo and sponsoring food and sanitation projects for the separate families in the Atmeh refugee camp, but this is not enough to meet the overwhelming need.

In January in Kuwait, over 40 countries pledged $1.5 billion to help Syrian refugee. We are pressing the countries now to make good on these pledges.

In addition to addressing humanitarian need, we're preparing for a Syria without Assad by helping the opposition lay the foundation for a democratic transition that protects the rights of all Syrians and that fosters, rather than threatens, stability in the Middle East. This effort is being coordinated closely with our partners in the region, including Israel. No one wants the Syrian state to collapse or to be overtaken by extremists. No one wants the risks associated with chemical weapons and terrorist bases.

That is why we and our partners are helping build the Syrian political opposition, including by recognizing the Syrian opposition coalition, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Comprising of diverse representatives inside and outside Syria, the coalition is committed to a democratic, inclusive Syria free from the influence of the violent extremists. Supporting such entities is the best way to ensure that the Syrian state that emerges after the Assad regime is inclusive and representative.

These political efforts are intertwined with our push for negotiations, and negotiated political transition is the best solution to the crisis in Syria. The Geneva communique calls for a transitional governing body with full executive powers and formed on the basis of mutual consent. This means that Assad, who has long lost his legitimacy and whom the opposition will never accept, will not play any role in that transitional governing body.

And if Assad is unwilling to decide that he's should transfer executive authority, we will continue to find ways to pressure him to think differently about what lies in the future.

While this administration continues to take a hard look at every available, practical and responsible means to end of the suffering of the Syrian people, we do not believe that it is in the United States or the Syrian peoples' best interest to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition.

The judgments we make must pass the test of making the situation better for the Syrian people and must also take into account the long- term human, financial and political costs for us, for Syria and for the region. We continue to believe that a political solution to the crisis is the best way to save the Syrian people further suffering and to avert further destruction of the country for which the regime bears overwhelming responsibility.

Thank you, again, for invitation to testify before your committee today. I'm happy to take your questions after my colleagues have made their statements.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Ambassador Ford?

AMBASSADOR FORD: Chairman Menendez and members of the committee, thank you very much for inviting me today. My colleague, Acting Assistant Secretary Jones, has spoken about sort of the broader picture of the Syrian crisis. So, if it's all right with you, I'd like to just say a few things about my recent trip to the region and to London and the latest on the particular work we're doing. And I know our time is short and, therefore, if you can just put my written statement in the record, that would be great.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Without objection.

AMBASSADOR. FORD: So the coalition -- the Syrian opposition coalition is at a crucial leadership juncture now. President Khatib has indicated that he may leave his position in May. Ghassan Hitto, who's from Texas, he is the coalition elected prime minister. And we know him. We worked with him on getting humanitarian assistance into Syria. But he is still establishing himself in his new role. And I met him yesterday in London, and he's still determining how he's going to do his work and with whom he will work.

I think, more broadly, Mr. Chairman, there is a real competition under way now between extremists and moderates in Syria. And we need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance. Iran's role in the conflict is especially pernicious as it helps the Assad regime build sectarian militias and attracts Hezbollah and Iraqi militants into Syria.

I met on Tuesday with the commander of the opposition armed forces in Aleppo. He highlighted to me that he senses that, up in Aleppo the Syrian regime is slowly running out of soldiers. He said, instead, there are more regime militia fighters where there used to be soldiers. And he, too, highlighted that Iranians and Hezbollah have increased their presence on the ground with the remaining Syrian forces up in Aleppo.

Yesterday, Wednesday, Syrian political leaders meeting with Secretary Kerry also highlighted this Iranian presence. And they, too, highlighted the role of Hezbollah fighters in different cities now in Syria. They also talked about Iraqi Shia fighters from the Abu Abbas brigade. And we know that brigade from our time in Iraq back in 2004.

Let me underline here that, while the Iranians and their friend are helping the Syrian regime, they have not been able to stop the slow progress of the armed opposition. They have slowed it in some places, as in up in Aleppo but they haven't stopped in. But their presence does aggravate the sectarian nature of the conflict now.

And, in particular, the Syrian regime's recruiting Alawites, Shia and Christians for its militias. And the human right abuses committed by those militias as well as armed groups, in some cases, on the opposition side has triggered more fear and fear of retaliation. So let me be clear here now that we condemn human rights abuses committed by all of the sides.

I'd also like to be clear that the Syrian regime bears the primary responsibility for turning what had been a peaceful protest movement the spring of 2011 into an armed conflict and for seeking to survive by making this armed conflict a sectarian one. So I mentioned there's fear on all sides, and it's very difficult to achieve reconciliation in such a climate of fear. But the Syrians are going to have to develop a vision of what freedom means in a new Syria. And it's not going to be easy. 

We, for our part, are working to give them a chance to develop that vision by helping them prepare for an inclusive, democratic transition as we push steadily for a negotiated political transition along the lines of the Geneva communique.

Let me underline here again that we view that Bashar al-Assad must step aside as part of that political transition. International support for the opposition coalition is going to be crucial to bolster the opposition coalition's capacity to provide support to Syrians. We helped set up the Friends of Syria group, and we have led that steadily.

As part of our leadership, Secretary Kerry announced a new package of assistance of $63 million. That package will help counter extremists. It will help us weigh in on behalf of the moderates. And it will enable the coalition to move ahead in attracting more support as it develops a political transition process.

We look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, and with other members of the committee as we go forward. Thank you.