Syria Spillover: The Growing Threat of Terrorism and Sectarianism in the Middle East and Ukraine Update
Deputy Secretary of State
Before addressing the issue of extremism in the Levant, let me first offer a quick assessment of developments in Ukraine, as you requested.
A great deal is at stake in Ukraine today. Less than 48 hours ago in Kyiv, not far from the Shrine of the Fallen, Secretary Kerry made clear America’s deep and abiding commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in the face of Russian aggression, and our determination to ensure that the people of Ukraine get to make their own choices about their future. That’s a bedrock conviction for the United States. On my own visit last week, I was profoundly moved by the bravery and selflessness of Ukrainians, and profoundly impressed by the commitment of the new interim government to reach across ethnic and regional lines and build a stable, democratic and inclusive Ukraine, with good relations with all of its neighbors, including Russia.
While we and our partners worked to support Ukraine’s transition, Russia worked actively to undermine it. Russia’s military intervention in Crimea is a brazen violation of its international obligations, and no amount of Russian posturing can obscure that fact.
Ukraine’s interim government, approved by 82 percent of the Rada, including most members of Yanukovich’s party, has shown admirable restraint in the face of massive provocation. They need and deserve our strong support. President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the entire Administration have been working hard, steadily and methodically, to build urgent international backing for Ukraine, counter-pressure against Russia, reassurance to other neighbors, and a path to de-escalation. Our strategy has four main elements, and we look forward to working with Congress on each of them.
First, immediate support for Ukraine as it deals with enormous economic challenges and prepares for critical national elections at the end of May. On Tuesday, Secretary Kerry announced our intent to seek a $1 billion loan guarantee. That will be part of a major international effort to build a strong economic support package for Ukraine as it undertakes reform. That effort includes the IMF and the EU, which laid out its own substantial assistance package yesterday. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and his colleagues are committed partners, and understand that the Ukrainian government has difficult reform choices to make, after inheriting an economic mess from Yanukovich. Ukraine’s considerable economic potential has never been matched by its business environment or economic leadership, and now is the time to begin to get its financial house in order and realize its promise.
Second, deterring further encroachment on Ukrainian territory and pressing for an end to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. President Obama has led broad international condemnation of Russia’s intervention, with strong, unified statements from the G-7 and NATO, as well as the EU, whose leaders are meeting today in an emergency summit. We are sending international observers from the OSCE to Crimea and eastern Ukraine to bear witness to what is happening and make clear that minorities are not at risk. This was never a credible claim by Russia, nor a credible pretext for military intervention.
We are making clear that there are costs for what Russia has already done, and working with our partners to make clear that the costs will increase significantly if intervention expands. Today, the President signed an executive order authorizing sanctions – including asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine; threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine; contributing to the misappropriation of state assets of Ukraine; or that purport to exercise authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. This E.O. will be used in a flexible way to designate those most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine.
The State Department today also put in place visa restrictions on a number of officials and individuals. We continue to look at every aspect of our relationship with Russia, from suspension of preparations for the Sochi G-8 Summit to pausing key elements in our bilateral dialogue.
Third, bolstering Ukraine’s neighbors. We are moving immediately to reinforce our Washington Treaty commitments to our allies. As Secretary Hagel stressed yesterday, we are taking concrete steps to support NATO partners, through intensified joint training with our aviation detachment in Poland and enhanced participation in NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltics.
And fourth, Secretary Kerry is working intensively to de-escalate the crisis, in order to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty while creating a diplomatic off-ramp. We support direct dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow, facilitated by an international contact group. As the President and Secretary Kerry have emphasized, we do not seek confrontation with Russia. It is clearly in the interests of both Ukraine and Russia to have a healthy relationship, born of centuries of cultural, economic and social ties. The will for that exists among Ukraine’s new leaders. But it cannot happen if Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path. That will only bring greater isolation and mounting costs for Russia.
Our strategy, it seems to me, needs to be steady and determined, mindful of what’s at stake for Ukrainians as well as for international norms. We also need to be mindful of the enduring strengths of the United States and its partners, and the very real weaknesses sometimes obscured by Russian bluster. Most of all, President Putin underestimates the commitment of Ukrainians, across their country, to sovereignty and independence, and to writing their own future. No one should underestimate the power of patient and resolute counter-pressure, using all of the non-military means at our disposal, working with our allies, and leaving the door open to de-escalation and diplomacy if Russia is prepared to play by international rules.
Extremism in the Levant
Now let me turn very briefly to the Levant. The turbulence of the past three years has had many roots: rising aspirations for dignity, political participation and economic opportunity in a region in which too many people for too many years have been denied them; the ruthless reaction of some regimes; and the efforts of violent extremists to exploit the resulting chaos.
Nowhere have these trends converged more dangerously than in Syria. The conflict, and the Asad regime, have become a magnet for foreign fighters , many affiliated with terrorist groups from across the region and around the world. As Matt will describe, these fighters, mostly Sunni extremists, represent a long-term threat to U.S. national security interests. From the other side, Asad has recruited thousands of foreign fighters, mostly Shia, to defend the regime, with active Iranian support and facilitation. The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism – on both sides of the sectarian divide.
We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result: the risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups who seek to gain long-term safe havens; the risk to the stability of our regional partners, including Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq; the risk to Israel and other partners from the rise of Iranian-backed extremist groups, especially Lebanese Hizballah fighting in Syria; and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.
These are enormous challenges. They require a steady, comprehensive American strategy, aimed at isolating extremists and bolstering moderates, both inside Syria and amongst our regional partners. I’d highlight four elements of our strategy:
First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria. That means stepping up efforts with other governments to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, and cutting off financing and weapons to terrorist groups. It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible. Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists who threaten both the present and the post-Asad future of Syria and the region. None of this is easy, but the stakes are very high.
Second, we are pushing hard against Iranian financing and material support to its proxy groups in Syria and elsewhere. We are also working intensively with partners in the Gulf and elsewhere to curb financing flows to extremists.
Third, we are increasing cooperation with Turkey, and intensifying our efforts to strengthen the capacity of Syria’s other endangered neighbors:
-- In Jordan, which I visited again last month, we are further enhancing the capacity of the Jordanian Armed Forces to police its borders and deepening intelligence cooperation on extremist threats. The staggering burden of supporting 600,000 Syrian refugees has put serious strain on Jordan’s resources. We deeply appreciate Congress’ continued support for significant U.S. assistance for Jordan, which has totalled about a billion dollars in each of the last couple years, complemented by substantial loan guarantees. I can think of no better investment in regional stability than our efforts in Jordan.
-- In Lebanon, we are supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces to deter spillover, better monitor the border with Syria, and help bolster the government’s policy of “dissociation” from the Syrian conflict. The formation of a new Cabinet last month provides a renewed opportunity for the United States to engage, and Secretary Kerry reaffirmed our strong commitment to Lebanon’s security and economic stability directly to President Sleiman and at the International Support Group for Lebanon ministerial meeting in Paris yesterday.
-- In Iraq, we are surging security assistance and information sharing to combat the rising threat from ISIL, while pressing Iraqi leaders to execute a comprehensive strategy – security, political and economic – to isolate extremists, especially in Anbar. That was one of the main purposes of my last visit to Baghdad at the end of January. I appreciate the close consultation we’ve had with you, Mr. Chairman, and with other members of the Committee on these crucial issues, and we look forward to continuing to address your concerns, which we share.
And finally, we are supporting global efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria, through the $1.7 billion we have already contributed. We are working hard to facilitate the delivery of cross-border aid, using the recently adopted UN Security Council resolution to expand humanitarian access. We are also providing substantial aid to refugee populations in neighboring countries.
Beyond the Levant, we continue to work with our Gulf partners to enhance security cooperation, blunt the extremist threat, and support sound economic development in transitioning countries. This will be an important focus of the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia later this month.
Mr. Chairman, the rise of extremism in the Levant poses an acute risk for the United States, and for our regional partners. It is essential that we intensify our efforts to isolate extremists in Syria, limit the flow of foreign fighters, bolster moderate opposition forces, ease the humanitarian crisis, and help key partners like Jordan defend against spillover. Thank you again for your focus on these vitally important challenges, and I look forward to continuing to work with you.