Senators re-evaluate how to achieve democracy in Syria

Senator Bob Corker/ Photo: Senate Foreign Relations Committee

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Thursday to evaluate the United States' approach to policy in Syria.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump launched a military strike on a Syrian government air base in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians -- including young children. Before then, airstrikes in the region were targeted primarily toward the Islamic State group and not Syrian Government. The Islamic State group’s presence in Syria had diminished by the end of 2017.

The United States along with Russia and Jordan signed a memorandum of principles in Nov. 2017 to maintain administrative arrangements in opposition areas, primarily the southwestern portion of the country.

The committee met Thursday to discuss how the U.S. can continue to help in securing the region from terrorist groups and help the Syrian people establish a fair and democratic process for governing.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R- Tenn., blamed President Bashar Assad’s regime for its involvement in the country’s ongoing unrest and instability.

“More than 12 million people, roughly half of all Syrians are displaced and the Assad regime bears overwhelming responsibility for this destruction and extremism it has spawned,” Corker said. With the support of the U.S. and collation partners, the Syria democratic forces succeeded in sweeping ISIS out of the capital of Raqqa in October.”

The chairman said that while the territory was lost in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group is still a major threat to the regional stability.

“There is also the ongoing danger posed by al-Qaida and Syria affiliates, which maintains significant influence in opposition-controlled areas,” Corker said. “Iran and its proxies (for example Hezbollah) have deepened their foothold in southern Syria potentially exacerbating the conflict sectarian nature. Risking further instability by threatening our ally Israel.”

The Senate Committee’s Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D- M.d., called on the committee to remain conscientious of Russia’s role and interests during this process.

“How will American diplomacy play out?” Cardin asked. “What is Russia’s role here? In the future will it be effective in preventing Mr. Assad from being held accountable for his war crimes?”

But the senator also reminded the committee that stability in Syria cannot be achieved through a military-only approach.

“The Trump administration appears to view Syria through a military lens, make decisions of troop levels and military missions in a policy vacuum,” Cardin said. “Now the administration is arguing even after ISIS is defeated, our forces will still remain in Syria to make sure that ISIS cannot return. The same time, U.S. forces have significantly increased without any public explanation.”

Both Sens. Cardin and Corker were disappointed in the Department of Defense, which was invited to testy during the hearing but declined the invitation.

Senior Bureau Official for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department and Former Ambassador to Lebanon, David Satterfield, was the hearing’s sole witness. He told the committee that while the United States has made significant progress the job is not done.

“While Russia may deem and announce that the fight in ISIS in Syria is over the U.S. and our collation partners do not regard this as a finished effort,” Satterfield said. “The U.S. is committed to the total and enduring defeat of ISIS al-Qaida other terrorist groups in Syria and the region ensuring that they cannot regenerate and return.”

The ambassador added that America would not work with the Assad regime until a credible political process led by the Syrian people to select their own governing officials. He said that until that process takes place the U.S. and our allies would not participate in large scare efforts to reconstruct the county.

Corker questioned if it was possible to even achieve a fair election in Syria and if the Assad regime could stand to be fairly elected.

“We cannot conceive of a circumstance in which generally fair electoral process overseen by the U.N with participation with the Syrian displaced community could lead to a result in which Assad remained at the helm,” Satterfield said.

Cardin wanted to understand how a fair election process could be implemented and sustained. Satterfield told the committee that the international community and the United States will not provide money until the process has taken place.

“Syria needs reconstruction the bill varies in estimate but let’s say between $200 and $300 billion plus to reconstruct,” Satterfield said. “The international community committed itself not to provide that reconstruction assistance until those goals convolutional reform U.N supervised elections are realized. Now that is a powerful incentive.”

“We don’t underestimate the challenges ahead,” Satterfield said. “This is going to be hard, very hard to do. Assad will cling to power at almost every cost possible."

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